Of strong women then and now

The Archduchess Isabella of Spain ruled the (Southern) Netherlands from 1598 until her death in 1633. Atelier of Frans Pourbus II, ca 1600 All rights: www.rijksmuseum.nl

The Archduchess Isabella of Spain ruled the (Southern) Netherlands from 1598 until her death in 1633.
Atelier of Frans Pourbus II, ca 1600
All rights: http://www.rijksmuseum.nl


Most people still have a somewhat – as we often say in academia – 19th century view on women’s roles in past societies.

No doubt these views are also more than a little influenced by what cinema’s and TV show us. From the tragic life of Georgiana Spencer in The Duchess to the unlikely love story between the lady Sybil and her chauffeur in Downton Abbey, we seem to be hovering between the idea of women being forced into doomed marriages or women constantly challenging accepted gender norms. Victims or heroines in other words.

Rarely are we presented with women who managed to work with these roles and who carved out a position in society without having to completely revolutionize the way people – mostly men – seemed to think about them.

When I first applied for a position at a university in the Netherlands, I had to defend my research proposal in front of a jury consisting mostly of men, mostly of non-historians, and who were mostly completely oblivious to the wondrous worlds of both gender and court history. When asked what the point was about researching noble women’s lives, I stated that women did more than needlework in castle tower chambers.

They were able administrators and accountants, taking care of the family’s financial affairs while their husbands were off fighting some war (and we had a lot of wars in the Low Countries!). Women made sure all of their children – both boys and girls – were well educated, according to the norms of their time. Wives and widows entertained an impressive correspondence with religious and political leaders of all over Europe. Women – aunts, sisters, nieces, mothers – were the matchmakers of the Ancien Regime, carefully picking out brides or grooms that would preferably be an asset to both their future partners and to the family patrimony.

In my view, if we as historians ever really wanted to understand the Ancien Regime, we needed to shift our attention to the other half of society, after spending decades researching mainly ‘brave men on horseback dying on battlefields’.

Now, 8 years later, I stand by what I thought then. What’s more, after spending years reading and analysing 17th century documents, I’m convinced that for these people society didn’t merely consist of either men or women, it consisted of men AND women. They supported each other, influenced each other, helped each other, worked together to further the family’s – or as I should say dynasty’s – interests for the generations that came after them. And interestingly enough, strong women were an example to everyone and respected by all.

Of course there were conflicts. There were fights between siblings, between mothers and sons, between spouses. Is it any different now? But in general people realised that the real road to success was working together.

Which brings me – unbelievably I know – to Equal Pay Day in Belgium today. Sadly, women are still not rewarded for their work in the same way men are. Sadly, some men still do not believe women actually do earn less than men, despite all the evidence. Sadly, in many places on this little planet of ours, women are still being exploited and treated as second class citizens. And all I see, sadly, are ‘men’ and ‘women’ on opposite sides of society, talking against each other and not with each other.

The truth is, if we don’t work towards a complete equality between the sexes, if we do not value both women’s and men’s roles in society in an equal measure, if we keep on denying that discrimination exists, we will never find the road to success.

Which is why I support Equal Pay Day. Not just for myself, but for my daughter and for all those women in my world and yours who can’t speak up for their rights.