International Women’s Day: The History of Emotions and Women’s History

Pieter Angillis, 1685–1734, Flemish, active in Britain (from ca. 1715), Covent Garden, ca. 1726, Oil on copper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

By Joanne McEwan

International Women’s Day (IWD) has been observed on 8 March since the early twentieth century. It was originally linked to first-wave feminism’s political campaign for women’s rights – particularly enfranchisement. IWD is now more widely regarded as an opportunity to commemorate and celebrate women’s political, economic and cultural achievements, as well as to continue to advocate for gender parity and an end to enduring forms of oppression and discrimination.

Today, on International Women’s Day 2016, it seems fitting to reflect on how emotions history has helped to advance our understanding of women’s history, and vice versa. In considering this question, I am reminded of a comment CHE Partner Investigator Jonas Liliequist made last year. Asked how he arrived at the history of emotions, he said that emotions have always been integral to the study of topics such as gender, family, social relations and notions of honour. But, whereas in the 1990s historians placed their focus on constructions of gender, they are now more attentive to the significance of emotions and how they are expressed, performed, negotiated or even manipulated – in part to ask how they shaped and influenced such constructions of gender. So, really, emotions history helps us to theorise and analyse, in order to nuance and better understand, what has always been an integral part of women’s and gender history.

Thinking about this more closely, the study of emotions history contributes to women’s history in a number of ways. The myriad projects being undertaken by scholars within Centres such as CHE continue to uncover examples of assertive women, and give voice to women’s experiences. In February 2016, for example, CHE at UWA hosted a production of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Rob Conkie (Latrobe University) and performed by Melbourne’s ‘Nothing But Roaring’ theatre company. As performance historians Elizabeth Schafer and Julian Meyrick suggest in a recent article, ‘Vale Shakespeare, the (Not Always) Patriarchal Bard’, in The Conversation, The Merry Wives is ‘full of men behaving badly pitted against witty, assertive, determined women … Unlike most of Shakespeare’s plays, Merry Wives keeps women at the forefront of the action’. At a symposium held in conjunction with the performance, the enduring power of female friendships in the play, and the dynamism of Mrs Ford and Mrs Page’s relationship in Conkie’s rendition, was a widely discussed point. Furthermore, as Schafer and Meyrick note, ‘The play is also unique in the Shakespearean canon for featuring a husband apologising to – indeed grovelling in front of – his wife’.[1]

Mrs Ford and Mrs Page in the New Fortune Theatre production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at The University of Western Australia.

As well as drawing attention to such examples, emotions history advances our understanding of social relationships – such as those between female friends, spouses, parents and children or individuals and authority figures[2] – by allowing for a finer appreciation of emotional attachments and investments. An understanding of such attachments has the potential to nuance, complicate or undermine more dominant assumptions and narratives. Far from being the cold-hearted murderers that contemporary legal or religious authorities would have us believe, for example, women accused of killing their newborn infants in eighteenth-century Scotland sometimes revealed strong attachments to them, and told woeful stories of the social and economic vagaries that had led to their situation. Similarly, despite the subordinate position of women within patriarchal society, we can find examples of women confiding in, and relying on, each other when dealing with situations such as domestic violence. There were also strong social pressures to condemn female sexual activity, yet there is evidence of early modern women helping pregnant maidservants and kinswomen, even when their own honour and relationships with men were threatened by these associations.

Projects being undertaken by members of CHE extend our understanding of women’s political manoeuvres and diplomatic strategies, by considering how they used or ‘performed’ emotion to particular ends. Sue Broomhall, for example, explains:

My current ARC Future Fellowship research explores emotions of women in power through the political experiences of the French queen consort, regent and mother of three kings, Catherine de Medici (1533–1588). Catherine faced some extreme criticisms in her lifetime from hostile commentators, much of which has – inaccurately – gone on to define her as a historical figure. A particular focus of my work is to investigate Catherine’s rhetorical, material and affective performances of emotion as an active component of her political work, frequently functioning to facilitate forms of alignment between Catherine and her anticipated interlocutors in these interactions. I examine these performances through ‘diplomatic events’; that is, specific encounters between Catherine and foreign ambassadors at the French court, with her family, foreign political leaders or French ambassadors who represented her views at other courts. These involved physical behaviours, gestures and emotional displays in particular spatial contexts, as well as layered textual and textualised performances, all of which were shaped by contemporary assumptions about what women could and should feel, what they should express and what role they should play in official and other political processes. Catherine’s long participation in the political life of the French kingdom during the sixteenth century provides a huge variety of events to analyse and the opportunity to chart changes in her strategies of emotion and of power. This analysis forms the basis of the monograph I’m currently writing, The Power of Emotions: Catherine de Medici.

Portrait of Catherine de’Medici. By Workshop of François Clouet. Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As Sue’s example also shows, the tools and methodologies of emotions history develop our understanding of the affective practices women (and men) engaged in, and the ways in which they expressed, performed and negotiated their emotions in different contexts. These negotiations, in which individuals mediated their emotional expressions and performance in light of expectations and ‘emotional scripts’, are evident in both the records of their day-to-day interactions and in their texts and narratives.

To browse a full list of projects currently being undertaken by CHE members here

These are just a few of the ways in which the history of emotions and women’s history inform each other. Tell us how you think they intersect on twitter: #WomenEmotion.

Joanne McEwan is a Research Assistant with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, based at The University of Western Australia. Her own research focuses on gender, crime and social relations in eighteenth-century Britain.

[1] Elizabeth Schafer and Julian Meyrick, ‘Vale Shakespeare, the (not always) patriarchal Bard’, The Conversation, 29 February 2016,

[2] On this, see chapters in Susan Broomhall, ed., Authority, Gender and Emotions in Late Medieval and Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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