A Passion for the Past or Why I Study History
When I first embarked on the venture of Living History, I looked forward to not only bringing history to life for others, but also getting into some deeper historical research for my own writing. It ended up becoming much more than that.
I've been doing this for probably a little over a year now (close to a year and a half), and in addition to getting an even better grasp on historical events than I had before (which really fuels the history lover in me), more opportunities in music, acting, and writing opened up. I've also gained and even richer insight to my already pretty nuanced takes on history.
One thing I always make a point of doing when studying any era is to try and acquire a complete picture of all that was taking place in a given time, including the statutes of the day, the political climate, what happened previously that might have been the cause of such a political climate, and any other pesky nuances that might contribute to connecting with and trying to understand the past on a deeper level. This, of course, is in opposition to the more basic 'on the surface' view that many seem to have.
In the midst of it all, I found myself wanting to talk of these more nuanced views and therefore try to quell the many preconceived notions that seems to cloud our vision of the distant past. Yes, studying history can be overwhelming and perhaps that is at least part of why many tend to take that basic surface only approach that also feeds many historical myths.
When asked where to start, I usually recommend starting with Mary Miley Theobald's book Death by Petticoat: American History Myths Debunked along with her accompanying website. Of course, I don't necessarily agree with everything she says (you'll have that with anyone, though) but it is a great place to be opened to seeing which historical events might need a little further investigation in order to have a more well-rounded outlook.
As a subscriber to Jas. Townsend's newsletter and YouTube Channel, I find much of his insights to be extremely valuable (Jas. Townsend & Son is a great source, particularly great if you are looking to get into Living History), not only as a reenactor, but also as someone that considers herself a lifelong student of history. There was one issue of his newsletter that especially jumped out at me and if I may, here is a passages from it:
We can learn so much from these stories, both the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, but that can never happen if these stories continue to go ignored. Not to mention that while I'm sure that many who come to historical sites do so with an interest in learning more of the portrayed time period, a good number of these individuals come in with preconceived notions. This is especially so when it comes to the women of the time.
Even just from observing what I see many saying online, it seems to be widely believed that women were "hidden away" and "put in their place", lest they be "burned as a witch for stepping out of line." While having more pronounced gender roles, more defined meanings of "women's work" versus "men's work", and a strong push toward all women marrying when of age back in the day isn't false, many of our predecessors were more worried about surviving than they were concerning themselves with 'John Smith's' wife helping run her husband's business instead of being confined to the hearth "where she belongs". In fact, 'John Smith down the road' having his wife help him run his tavern was not all that unusual, as - for many at that time - the home was the center of the economy, not only for that household, but the entire community. Many businesses were conducted from inside a family's home and often, the entire family contributed in one form or another (children as young as four were considered active members of the family, meaning they also did their share). But many today don't seem to consider that.
I've read of such accounts from other historical sites as well, when the tourist seems to think that women were merely subservient housewives (one reason why - according to Jas. Townsend and other sources - women are also hesitant when exploring the idea of being involved with Living History) and are often shocked when they learn of women working in a place like a printing press or blacksmith shop. Usually the tourist in question assumes that the museum is fulfilling some sort of 'equal opportunity clause' when in reality what they are seeing is historical accuracy. I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone say things along the lines of "wow, that's the opposite of what you normally hear!" While I am always happy to clear those details up for them, it is troubling to see just how skewed a lot of it is.
Colonial Williamsburg's website has some excellent articles on the contributions of women throughout history and how, oftentimes, seeing a woman working at a printing press, owning a tavern, etc, really was not considered all that unusual for many in Colonial society:
Women's Service in the Revolutionary Army
Gentlewomen of the Press
With All the Grace of the Sex (also includes a brief podcast)
According to the article, "Gentlewomen of the Press":