Professor Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks

Agency and Activism: Then and Now

Professor Merry Wiesner-Hanks’ talk briefly surveys recent thinking about agency as a concept in several disciplines, provides a few early modern examples of women’s agency, and then connects these with some of the issues that have emerged in recent women’s activism or that appear as if they will be particularly serious as we move forward (we all hope) into a post-COVID world. She discusses why agency has been such a powerful concept in women’s and gender studies, particularly for periods and places in which scholars seek to overcome an emphasis on victimization or passivity, and outline Allyson Poska’s notion of ‘agentic gender norms’ that operated alongside patriarchal norms in the early modern world. She notes that most of the huge amount of scholarship on early modern women that has emerged over the last decade argues for some level of women’s agency. Yes, patriarchal expectations and/or institutions were a powerful force, but in whatever case the author is examining, this woman or these women successfully resisted, and wrote, composed, painted, ruled, migrated, lived alone, had sex and often children out of wedlock, worked, ran businesses, and so on. In somewhat greater detail, she discusses the role of women and girls in changing patterns of consumption and work, and how this plays out in debates about the growing economic dominance of Europe. At the end, she links these to contemporary issues, as COVID has laid bare the fragility of many gains for women.

Please see below for a bibliography kindly provided by Professor Wiesner-Hanks:

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