Magazine

Power of women protest movements

  • 20 August 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Protesters at Greenham Common in the 1980s
UK authorities felt powerless to act when confronted with 32,000 women joining hands in protest at the presence of cruise missiles at Greenham Common

True equality will only have been achieved when women are punished as harshly as men for their misdemeanours, says Lisa Jardine in her Point of View column.

A ship carrying humanitarian aid, "manned" entirely by women, is ready to leave Lebanon on the first leg of its journey to Gaza in an attempt to break the Israeli blockade. Named the Mariam (the Aramaic version of Mary), it has a multi-faith international passenger list, including doctors, lawyers and a group of American nuns.

History is full of unexpected precedents where human behaviour is concerned. Although the Mariam initiative has been dubbed by some a publicity stunt, the historian of 16th and 17th-Century Europe encounters groups of ordinary working women acting in a disorderly manner surprisingly often.

Women turn up telling off priests, berating the local fiscal authorities, leading grain and bread riots and participating in tax revolts. In England in the early 17th Century, a significant percentage of the rioters against the enclosure of common land were female.

We have vivid first-hand descriptions of some of these disturbances, and we even know what some of the female ringleaders looked like. In 1653 the judicial authorities in Alkmaar, Holland, circulated the descriptions of two women who had led a women's riot against the local administration and its taxes, and had evaded arrest:

"Griet Piet Scheer, age 36, blonde hair, thin face with blue eyes, fairly tall, lean figure, soberly dressed. Sometimes she wears black and at others she wears a blue overall with red sleeves; she acted as captain. Alit Turfvolster, who carried the flag, is also tall but somewhat stouter than the above-mentioned Griet; she tends to sniff through her nose, is of brown complexion with black hair and untidy clothes; she wears a bodice with a linen apron, and is aged 30."

Some particularly colourful instances have become legendary. In St Giles' Cathedral in Edinburgh on Sunday 23 July 1637, as the Dean began to read the Anglican service from Archbishop Laud's English prayer book - recently imposed on Calvinist Scotland by Charles I - Jenny Geddes, a local market-woman, leapt to her feet, so we are told, and threw her three-legged-stool straight at the minister's head.

As she hurled it she is reported to have yelled: 'How dare ye say Mass in my lug [ear]?' Whereupon a crowd of 'rascally serving women' drowned out the reading, and when evicted from the church, threw stones at the doors and windows. Today, a sculpture of a three-legged stool, prominently placed in St Giles's, serves as a monument to her disruptive behaviour.

It was the distinguished social and cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis (now in her 80s) whose groundbreaking work on unruly women first brought them to general scholarly attention. She argued that one of the reasons women regularly led manifestations of resistance against authority was the license traditionally accorded to them - as the weaker sex - to misbehave.

Given over to the sway of her lower passions, she was supposed not to be responsible for her actions and could not be held accountable for her disruption. At the same time, social mores entitled her to "speak out of turn" - to rail and scold - against anyone who threatened the safety or wellbeing of her family.

Husband's responsibility

Her "incapacity" to control herself, or act rationally once her protective passions were aroused, was embodied in varying degrees in the European legal system. According to English law of the period, it was her husband who was responsible for her conduct. Even if indicted, she might be acquitted, or receive a lesser sentence for the same crime.

Natalie Davis records in a memoir how, curiously, her own life and that of the 16th Century women, whose stories she had uncovered, converged in the 1950s during the McCarthy era when left-leaning young academics like herself were caught up in the witch-hunts - led by Senator Jo McCarthy - against supposed Communist sympathisers.

She and her husband had their passports confiscated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities, for alleged links with Communism. Although her husband was publicly interrogated in 1954, and lost his university job, she - though unable to travel abroad - was able to continue to pursue her career as an historian. The House Committee's members "assumed that if a married couple did something [un-American] together, only the husband was really responsible".

Reading the colourful accounts in the archives, it is often tempting to assume that all women's riots were admirable, and to convince ourselves we should give them our post-hoc support. But it is clear that some recorded incidents are unprovoked assaults on unfortunate office-holders simply trying to do their job.

When, in July 1649, Alice Harper subjected her local tax inspector to voluble verbal abuse, the charge he laid against her in court was one of being "curst and shrewd" and a "common scold" - charges which if substantiated could lead to her being made to stand in the corner of the church during Sunday service, wearing a white sheet:

"We whose names are under written," he testified, "do certify that Alice Harper of Steeple Ashton is a most troublesome and perverse woman, she being a common scold having from time to time abused with her tongue the best men and women in the town of Steeple Ashton, and now upon our knowledge she hath abused John Markes and his wife, he being a Tithing man of the aforesaid town, for executing his office, most viperous with her tongue and giving them such bad and gross language as no tongue can well express."

Whether for good or ill, however, in the course of the 17th and 18th Centuries, the licence accorded to rioting women had a curious consequence. Men began to dress as women, and call themselves by fictitious women's names, when leading public disturbances. In 1629, "Captain" Alice Clark headed a crowd of mostly male weavers dressed as women in a grain riot near Maldon in Essex.

In 1641 in Wiltshire, bands of men rioted and levelled fences in protest against Charles I's enclosure of their forests, led by men dressed as women, calling themselves 'Lady Skimmington'.

Less rational

In the early 18th Century, labourers in Surrey rioted in women's clothes, and men disguised as women tore down the hated tollbooths and turnpike gates on the Gloucestershire border. Most notoriously, the so-called 'Rebecca riots' in Wales in the 1830s and 1840s, by farmers and agricultural workers against taxes and tolls, were led by gangs of noisy men in women's clothes.

There is, of course, some irony in the fact that the limited condoning by the authorities of all this disruptive behaviour by women, or men-dressed-as-women, depended on an assumption of absolute inequality between men and women. Female bad behaviour was occasionally tolerated on the grounds that women were less rational, less able to control their emotions, and hence less responsible for their actions.

In our own era, this was probably still among the assumptions that allowed the encampment of women anti-nuclear protesters at RAF Greenham Common, a British base near Newbury where US Cruise missiles were located during the Cold War, to continue for more than a decade.

Samar al-Hajj, one of the organizers of Mariam Gaza aid ship
Organisers of the Mariam's mission will hope for different response than male counterparts

The women-only peace camp was set up there in the early 1980s, and organised a series of peaceful demonstrations against which the police felt largely powerless to act. When, in December 1982, 30,000 women joined hands to encircle the entire base, weaving flowers and knitted decorations into the wire fencing, it was hard for the authorities to decide on a suitable response.

In those days, I confess, I found myself drawn to the Greenham Common women, just as I continue to find the traces of feisty women in the historical records hard to resist. Natalie Davis recalls how, as she explored the archives, she found herself "rooting in a large sense for 'working people' and for 'progressive' movements that favoured literacy" and how that put her on the side of her misbehaving 16th and 17th-century women.

Today, though, I have to concede that on the whole they tell us more about the limitations on women's lives, than what they could actually achieve.

As for their contemporary counterpart - the women sailing on the Mariam - I have little doubt that their intention is to show the world that their attempt to help the beleaguered residents of Gaza is solely humanitarian.

They presumably anticipate a less hostile response from the crews of the Israeli ships sent to intercept them en route than that meted out to their male counterparts. Perhaps we should consider whether we might only have arrived at real equality when women are no longer accorded their traditional licence occasionally to misbehave with impunity.