Women's Experience, Imaginary Women, and Male Authority

Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship 1
Friday, January 7, 2011: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Northeastern Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Jennifer D. Thibodeaux, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Session Abstract

Feminist scholarship on clerical representations of medieval women has contributed much to scholarly understandings of the ways in which medieval thinkers conceptualized women according to paradigms drawn from Biblical, classical, or patristic sources. Recent work, such as Barbara Newman’s book God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages, has turned to another type of conceptualization: female embodiments of virtues, suggesting that some medieval intellectuals depended on imaginary feminine personifications of the virtues—or aspects of divinity itself—to aid them in their intellectual endeavors. The papers in this session will present new research on the ways in which male intellectuals were able to press feminine personifications—or Woman Imagined—into the service of pedagogical or political goals. While ideas about Brides, Mothers, or Daughters, or feminized roles (such as peacemaker or intercessor) could be embraced by real women, they could sometimes be appropriated by powerful men, even to the disadvantage of real women. The papers in this session all explore the practice of constructing male authority in response to or on the basis of imaginary women and how this practice affected medieval understandings of gender in the arenas of spirituality and politics. The papers will address topics such as: male elites’ usage of female embodiments of the virtues or the vices; male representations of specific “categories” of women; and imaginary disputations between university masters and female respondents. In addition to exploring the ways in which the achievements, experiences, and social roles of real women could provide intellectuals with the basis of their depictions of “Woman Imagined,” these papers will examine how male portrayals of women directly impinged on the experiences and opportunities available to real women, especially in the realms of spiritual authority and political achievement.