Women and Agency: Transnational Perspectives, c.1450-1790 – A Personal Reflection by Sam Dobbie

Sam Dobbie is a second year postgraduate researcher at the University of Glasgow. Her primary interests lie in the French Revolution, and, more specifically, the role that women played during this revolutionary process by actively participating within the public sphere. Her PhD project focuses on the importance of female agency in influencing the process of the French Revolution between 1789 and 1795, and connecting gender theories with theories of revolution. She also has interests in the 1848 and 1871 revolutions in France, and revolutionary and gender theories more broadly.

On 24 and 25 June 2021, the University of Oxford, with the help of a generous contribution from TORCH, hosted the symposium, Women and Agency: Transnational Perspectives, c.1450-1790. Due to the restrictions and uncertainty surrounding travel amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, this wonderful, informative, action-packed event was hosted online via Zoom. In spite of the virtual format, this interdisciplinary event was a huge success and achieved its overall aim of raising some interesting and critical discussions around the issues of early modern women’s agency across various contexts. From nuns in the Dutch Revolt, seventeenth-century taverns in England, and eighteenth-century French court trials, through to modern day environmental protests; this two-day conference covered a vast span of places, spaces, and forms of agency. The first day closed with Professor Merry Wiesner-Hanks – and her fascinating comparisons of agency and activism in the early modern period to the present day – the roundtable discussion on transnational perspectives rounded off the event -.

As a gender historian focusing on women’s agency in revolutionary Paris between 1789 and 1795, this symposium was very welcome. The two days were divided in the following way:

Thursday 24

  • Panel 1: Creating Agency
  • Panel 2: Crafting Agency
  • Panel 3: Embodying Agency
  • Panel 4: Challenging Representations
  • Keynote: Professor Merry Wiesner-Hanks – Agency and Activism: Then and Now

Friday 25

  • Panel 5: Practising Agency
  • Panel 6: Mobile Agents
  • Panel 7: Networks of Agency
  • Panel 8: Confronting Power
  • Roundtable Discussion – Women and Agency: Transnational Perspectives. Participants: Professor Bernadette Andrea, Professor Suraiya Faroqhi , Professor Ros Smith, chaired by Dr. Nadia Cattoni.

Of all of the conclusions drawn from the stimulating discussions that took place over the panels, the most valuable one was discovering the ways in which others working with this concept of female agency define it. Something I have found through my own research is that agency is a particularly tricky concept that is influenced by intersectional factors, such as age, race, marital status and social status, and is very much context dependent. There is also an assumption that others know what we mean by this concept when we use it. This was confirmed by the papers at the conference, many of which stated from the outset the ambiguities surrounding agency and the need to define it in relation to the historical contexts in which it is being applied. However, those presenting at the conference were able to spread some much-needed light on how we can approach this question from both positive and negative angles. Noting how female agency can be both offensive and defensive in its origins, it became apparent from panel discussions that women’s agency has undergone continuities and changes from the early modern period to the twenty-first century.

I was given the pleasure of hosting the panel entitled ‘Confronting Power’, which was held on the second day of the conference. The papers explored the dynamics of power, with panellists focusing variously on mixed-race relationships in colonial Bengal, using the wills left by British soldiers to study the objects that were often left to native women, and how this defined the relationships between the colonizers and the colonized; the trial of Marie-Catherine Cadière, a young French woman who accused a Jesuit priest of rape, and whose trial was reinterpreted in English theatres, often as operas, to draw parallels between France and England, and reflect upon the events occurring within British politics; and the Bishnoi movement of 1730, the first environmentalist protest in India, as a way of reflecting upon modern day protests and questioning why women have remained such a central aspect in these types of movement. Each of these papers were excellent and raised the following questions: Why do we need to question women’s agency? Why can we not just accept it as part of the story? How important were intersectional factors in influencing the degree of agency either that these women had or were perceived as having? How are we defining women’s agency and what does this mean for our research contexts? Does anything change significantly when we write women back into the story? What now, where do we as researchers go from these discussions? This panel was informative, providing a strong conclusion to the symposium. It highlighted some of the ways in which women challenged the oppression of patriarchal control and how women are either commemorated or, in the case of Cadière, are erased from national memory. It also raised the importance of leverage in female agency and the ways in which women could both resist and collude in patriarchal society. Few women were the passive victims of oppression that they are often perceived as being. Many actively challenged their subordinate roles and sought to change their circumstances.

This event was a triumph and allowed those interested in the ‘Woman Question’ to network, sharing their ideas and research with one another. The environment was both supportive and encouraging. I certainly learned a great deal over the two days and know that my own research, and approaches to research, will only benefit from the knowledge taken away from all of the speakers and chairs of the panel sessions. I cannot thank Kate Allan and Nupur Patel enough for hosting this spectacular event, particularly during these unprecedented and isolating times. Going forward, I wish to take onboard some of the points raised during this symposium – and be more critical and reflective when writing about or discussing women and the roles that they placed in the societies in which they lived or are living. This event has certainly renewed and reinvigorated my personal motivations for carrying out my research project – and has positively impacted my skills and line of questioning as a researcher.

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