Thursday, July 10, 2014

Something Old, Something New - The Medieval and Modern War on Women

“I respect you very much as a woman for your accomplishments. I even read that you studied medieval history, which I think will come in handy with trying to defend the Republican war on women.”
Liberal Radio Host Stephanie Miller to Carly Fiorina, failed Republican Senate Candiate, on CNN State of the Union, 7/6/2014.

On CNN last Sunday, Stephanie Miller used Fiorina’s degree in medieval history and philosophy from Stanford as an easy way to score a rhetorical point. Miller argued that the Republicans, especially in their views on women, are medieval, and medieval things, as everyone knows, are bad.

This idea that the Middle Ages were especially backwards doesn’t really hold up to close analysis, but it’s a pretty pervasive myth and I’m not surprised to see Miller use it. In fact, Fiorina has used that kind of language as well. In a keynote address in 2000, she labeled ignorant government regulators as medieval and celebrated cutting-edge tech companies as the heroes of the Renaissance.  

This is, of course, nonsense. 

The kinds of regulations to which Fiorina objects are a product of the development the modern state and economy. The heroes of the Renaissance frequently served tyrants in an era of terrible war and strife, though they produce beautiful art in a time of chaos, disease, and religious strife.

Despite this, if we take Miller seriously and think about what the study of the Middle Ages might tell us about gender discrimination, patriarchy, and health care in the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, we might make two arguments. First, knowing about the past in fact does come in handy when trying to understand the present. Second, one of the things the past reveals is that dangerous parts of the war on women are very modern.

Let’s start with a medieval story about women and healthcare.

14th-c drawing meant to depict "Trotula,"
a female doctor. Miscellanea medica XVIII
Wellcome Library, London. CC-zero
In 1322, the all-male medical faculty of the University of Paris took Jacoba Felice to court for practicing medicine without a license. At trial, witness after witness attested to her skill and denied that she had ever asked for payment. The court nevertheless found her guilty and ordered her to refrain from practicing medicine on pain of fine and excommunication.

On the surface, this looks like a classic example of medieval patriarchy at work.  But if the Middle Ages last from 500 to 1500 or so (and some scholars would end the medieval much earlier), 1322 is actually pretty late in the period. This is important because it shows that the specific issues in 14th-century Paris are new. 

Before that point, the men and women of the city had trusted Felice, investing her with social capital, although that didn’t help her in the face of the law. After this, male doctors increasingly worked to ban women from practicing medicine solely on the basis of their gender. In fact, according to Monica Green,   Professor of History at Arizona State University, Felice’s case may have sparked the physicians’ practice of applying gender-based barriers to the profession, since competency was harder to argue (Felice being supremely competent).

A modern analyst could use the case to inform either right-wing or left-wing arguments. On the one hand, it’s a kind of overreach of regulation that served the vested interests of male physicians who felt threatened by Felice’s competition. On the other, the case features a corporate body (the medical faculty) that used the courts and the church to enforce gender norms and restrict women’s access to quality healthcare. In the wake of the Hobby Lobby decision, that latter analysis does seem especially relevant, even if it’s not one Fiorina would make. 

Beyond the relatively narrow confines of medicine, the story of Felice also says a lot about the power of the state and what happens when that power is leveraged to reinforce gender or religious norms. The “state,” as we know the term, really begins to take shape in what we call the “early modern” period (starting around 1500, more or less), but we can see the roots in moments like the trial of Felice.

On the other hand, at its height, the pre-modern state had nothing like the kind of power that the weakest government can exercise today. The richest men or groups had nothing like the kind of wealth that corporations and plutocrats hold. The medical profession may have achieved power over credentials, but the knowledge and invasive possibilities of medicine today would have seemed largely inconceivable to the pre-modern physician.

At the core, Hobby Lobby’s arguments against providing contraceptive care do reflect older Christian ideas about gender, religion, and power. They are dangerous not because they are old, however, but because of the intrusive power of modern technology to peer into our most intimate lives. They are dangerous because of the control that corporations have over their worker’s health, a truly bizarre accident of 20th-century American labor history. They are especially dangerous because of the vast wealth leveraged by powerful conservative men who want to enshrine their religious views into law.

This is a modern battle as we decide what kind of country we want this to be. We resist the forces behind the Hobby Lobby decision not by mocking them for being antiquated, but through the ballot box, the courts, public opinion, and even the ultra-modern tool of internet-organized consumer boycotts.

On CNN, Miller’s quip suggested that patriarchy, gender repression, and even would-be theocracy are problems of the past, that the “war-on-women” is some kind of throwback to a barbaric and long-past age.

If only that were true.