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

Urvi Shah is an M.Phil. research scholar at the Department of English, Jadavpur University. She completed her undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in English literature from JU, and holds a Post-Graduate Diploma in Digital Humanities and Cultural Informatics from the School of Cultural Texts and Records, JU. She is associated with the gender rights group, Sappho for Equality, as a translator and transcriber. She is actively associated with the Indian Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies.


The virtual symposium hosted by the University of Oxford on 24th and 25thJune, 2021 was not just exciting and commendable but also extremely relevant. As the title suggests, the symposium aimed to discuss women’s agency from a transnational point of view within the particular timeframe: the mid-fifteenth to the late eighteenth century.

Gender and agency are topics about which much evaluation and deliberation has been done, yet, it continues to be a fertile ground for more dialogue and newer avenues of thought. The symposium, funded by the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund, looked at early modern women and their portrayal in various media in order to highlight and rethink aspects of representation and perception, their situatedness and positionality. The symposium was virtual, owing to the ongoing pandemic, which enabled people from all over the globe to connect with each other, overcoming physical barriers.

The symposium addressed agency in various forms as reflected by the panel divisions -Creating, Crafting, Embodying, Practising, and Challenging Agency, Mobility and Networks of Agency, and Confronting of Power. Significant areas of study were desire, music, beauty regimes, artistic depictions, theatre, violence, and social mobility. There were a total of eight panels which took place across the two days. The keynote address on the 24th was delivered by Professor Mary Wiesner-Hanks who traced the articulation of agency by women from the early modern period to the present, and how the notion has transformed in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. The roundtable discussion on the 25th was equally enlightening owing to the wide range of topics explored by the speakers Dr. Nadia Cattoni, Professor Bernadette Andrea, Professor Suraiya Faroqhi, and Professor Rosalind Smith.

I had the privilege of presenting a paper in the panel entitled “Practising Agency” along with a researcher of History, Debraj Ghatak, where we focused on the medieval Bengali Mangalkabya tradition and its representations of womanhood. We tried to delineate why these kinds of texts emerged in the first place, and the specific reasons for its emergence in the locale in which it still prevails. We briefly discussed the various divisions of the text within this broad corpus and the features that make it exceptional from other contemporary texts from the rest of India. We focused chiefly on the worship of regional female goddesses, the Mangalkabya, which is didactic in nature and instructs through allegories. We tried to position divine agency alongside mortal women’s agency, and trace the socio-cultural characteristics of medieval Bengal. Researching this paper took me back to my childhood when stories and legends from these texts would be narrated by female elders of the family, with all the children- including myself and my cousins, listening in awe, half-believing in its wisdom. But re-reading them now has unfurled the deep worldly wisdom that these verses contain, and helped me to engage with my roots in this constantly changing, globalised world. The two other papers in my panel concentrated on Shakespeare’s inn-keeper Mistress Quickly, and the role of nuns in the Dutch Revolt. Both papers were informative and thought-provoking, conveying valuable insights about how early modern women exercised their agency in the social and literary spheres. While the first paper focused on the journey of a woman in a man’s world of brewing, the second one spoke about the relation between womanhood and nationhood among English Catholic nuns during the European Reformation.  

Agency as we understand it largely refers to the power to act and influence, something that negates passivity and victimhood — attributes associated with women since time immemorial. This symposium aimed to once again shatter conventional concepts of women’s roles in society and highlight the triumph of women’s activism despite social pressure and gender-based expectations. The papers and their arguments have provided innovative interpretations on subjects widely worked on previously. In this sense, the event was a success.

Moreover, the symposium has allowed us to think afresh the ramifications of women’s movements and their contribution towards society, leading us to critically engage with gender and the politics associated with it, the multifarious ways of questioning, and often overhauling patriarchy. The interdisciplinary nature of the symposium, along with its all-inclusive focus, offers valuable inroads to intersectional feminist studies.

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