Okay, this doesn’t really have anything to do with Mormonism, but I wanted to ride the coattails of women’s history that the blog has been doing to try to get some feedback for my next project idea. Let me know if this has already been done.
A quote from Grevase of Tilbury (an eleventh century English scholar) sparked an idea for this new project. While investigating supernatural phenomenon, Grevase cited the authority of “the old wives” as proof that a supernatural belief (women flying and passing through walls) was real. Grevase saw the knowledge of old women as authoritative, whereas the “old wives’ tale” later came to mean foolish beliefs. Furthermore, Grevase said the old wives were making claims to supernatural events. I want to explore the history of Western attitudes toward the socially constructed category of both women’s knowledge and women’s charisma (revelation and supernatural power) from 1100 to 1850.
Universities, which began to emerge in the thirteenth century, made women’s knowledge not only an object of ridicule, but also saw women’s knowledge as the foil to the kind of knowledge universities hoped to achieve: universal rather than local, theoretical rather than empirical, text-based rather than oral, and male rather than female. Thus throughout the study I will juxtapose the learning of the doctor (the one who possessed authoritative and sanctioned knowledge) with that of the old woman (whose knowledge was suspect and even demonized).
The antipathy toward female learning and charisma came to a head with the rise of the witch-hunts that overwhelmingly targeted women. Medicine was also at the heart of these debates as midwives and wise women offered affordable medical care in contrast to medical doctors. Midwives and healers were often the targets of the scorn of the religious establishment, yet much of Western medicine based on the humeral system that was generally ineffective and even harmful. Such a juxtaposition became stark in the case of Ignaz Semmelweis, who in 1847 noted that women who gave birth were much more likely to die in hospitals than they were at the hands of midwives, leading to his conclusion that germs were spread around hospitals, leading to the development of germ theory.
I will likely end the book in the mid-nineteenth century, as women were increasingly granted doctorates after this point, but I will propose questions about the effects these attitudes towards “women’s knowledge” continue to have on our society. What happened to “women’s knowledge” when women became doctors? Are the kinds of knowledge that were placed in the caterogy of women’s knowledge worthwhile?