Queen Boudicca. Westminster Bridge, London.
Women have always had power and worth, even behind masks of weakness forced upon them by society. Indeed, in primitive hunter-gatherer societies, women and men had equal roles. Historically, war and pandemics have precipitated more power for women in societies where their rights were limited.
While women’s voices may have been silenced in politics, in history, and as artists, their social, artistic, and economic power was always felt behind the scenes, and portrayed vividly, not in historical documents, but in fictional voices. Ultimately, women in fiction are based on women in life, in real stories, and in families. This unit will touch on plays from ancient Greece, and examine the power of women in medieval fiction, where their voices were amplified after plagues, and encourage students to reflect on the value and importance of “women’s work” – and the essential work of all marginalized people – that was exposed by the COVID-19 quarantine, which started just as the seminar for this unit began.
When COVID-19 struck, research emerged on the positive effect plagues have on the agency of women in society. Mostly due to their greater survival rate, plagues led to changes that were beneficial to women, which was the case for the Black Plague1, the 1918 Influenza2, plagues in ancient Athens, in early Anglo-Saxon England, and perhaps COVID-193. Very current research is examining the potential for the 2020 pandemic to be a similar catalyst for societal changes that will benefit women and society4.
On May 11, 2020, my aunt Delphine died of COVID-19. I mention her because her life was similar in many ways to the immigrant lives of my students: She was the seventh of eight children born to my Italian immigrant grandparents, who lived in poverty in the South Bronx. She was born in 1925, lived through the Depression, her father’s early death, WWII, the Age of Aquarius, the Moon landing, and beyond the dawn of the Internet. She grew up in a beehive of a family of sisters, and she was tough. She got into fights on the streets. When she was a teenager, she dropped out of high school to work in a factory during the war. All of her older sisters worked, too, as the war created unprecedented opportunities for women. She married, went to work for Royal Typewriters, and worked until her retirement. She never had children.
I mention her because I don’t know what she would have made of the feminist movement of the 1960’s, since her life proved that women had power and deserved recognition. I mention her because she was a very ordinary, outrageous person, the loud one taking over the dance floor at all the weddings. She was the storyteller, the keeper of the embellished family history, and a story unto herself. She always told me I would be the first woman on the Moon. I might yet be.
I mention her because I realized that she is exactly the kind of person I would like my students to recognize in the voices of women in the works presented in this unit, and in the women in their own families: a woman whose power and agency was restricted by society, poverty, politics, place, and time – but, it would seem, no one told her. She found her agency as an essential worker during the horrors of WWII. Now, my students have the potential realize their power as essential workers during this pandemic, and can use this spotlight, as women did in the past, to fight for equality.