‘Let a Woman Be Silent’: Outlander, history and her-story

History’s scribes are men.

It is a peculiar truth that the world’s recorded stories are male-centric. For lots of reasons, like the exclusion of women from the public sphere, or the ideology of an inferior sex, the information we have about the past has been manhandled.

Women’s experiences have been largely omitted from history books, which mean the facts we learn in school focus on male rulers, male achievers, and how many male lives were lost in war.

We can find this bias when examining the Christian bible as a historical document. The subheadings of the gospels declare that Jesus Christ fed five thousand. While three accounts list ‘about five thousand men’, the number is said to be much greater, because the book of Matthew says there were ‘about five thousand, besides women and children.’ Leonard Swidler, in his book Jesus was a Feminist, claims that the status of women in the ancient world was ‘uniformly low’, which is why social norms of the day decreed only men’s hungry mouths be counted. The presence of thousands more women and children were ignored.

Echoing this sentiment, the Dictionary of American Biography (published in the 1950s), detailed all important historical figures in the making of modern America. Only one half of one percent were female characters.

This omission of women is typical of history books. Although the etymology of the word is unrelated (the Greek historia means ‘finding out, narrative’), symbolically, it has meaning: his-story.

Explaining the biographer’s bias, historian Anne Firor Scott noted, ‘Those who write history usually start from two assumptions: that woman’s natural place is in the home, and that ‘history’ takes place on the battlefield or in the Congress…Women, therefore, by definition do not make history.’

An investigation commissioned by Slate found that of more than 600 history books published in 2015, 75.8 percent were written by men, and 71.7 percent were concerned with male subjects. But this, still, is progressive; it was only recently that women’s stories were publicly recognised as being left out.

The quest to investigate women’s history gathered steam during the second wave of feminism. Sheila Rowbotham’s book Hidden from History, sets about ‘writing women into history.’ Among other subjects, Rowbotham studied the attitude towards women’s chastity and morality in Puritan England. Continuing this work, Making the Invisible Woman Visible, by Anne Firor Scott, depicted female social and political roles throughout American history.

These texts enact the principle of her-story. This is a feminist revision of history, which seeks to emphasise ‘women’s lives, deeds, and participation in human affairs [that] have been neglected or undervalued in standard histories,’ (Words and Women, Casey Miller and Kate Swift).

But not many people read history books after they’ve passed their high school exams. These scholastic endeavours may have impact for an academic community, but not the wider world. Instead, guess who is reinvigorating historical narratives with her-story? Our old friend pop culture.

Enter TV series Outlander, the historical romance set in the ethereal green of the Scottish highlands, and based on the Outlander series by American author Diana Gabaldon.

Claire Beauchamp is on a second honeymoon in 1945 with drab historian Frank, following him through derelict castles and old libraries. In his search of his ancestors, in his conversations with hobbyist record-keepers, in his mumbling stream of mansplained information, the only historical figures he mentions are men. This points to both scribes’ habits, and to that of some historians of the mid-20th century: blind to the omission of female storytelling.

Finally, Claire is snatched from her boring husband and magically transported back in time to 1743. The country is in the dying thralls of the clan system, and occupied by the English. This is where the story really begins.

‘So much of modern entertainment is predicated on the idea of the woman imperiled,’ wrote Roxane Gay for The Toast, ‘Outlander is no different. We have oft been reminded of Claire’s womanly vulnerability in a world ruled by men.’

While it may be a television trope, Outlander‘s depiction of a woman in its historical setting is accurate. In Scotland, rape and other violent crimes were ‘matters of daily occurrence’, according to a 19th century historian.

Claire finds herself in the middle of a tussle between countrymen. She comes across a British officer, separated from his troops, and despite being in the midst of battle, he unbuckles his belt and shoves her up against a wall. Luckily, a kindly Scottish man interrupts before anything happens, and promptly throws her onto his horse and knocks her out.

Our heroine awakens in a shadowy hut full of men, a fire crackling darkly. We see the greedy glint in some of the Scotmens’ eyes, and it barely registers that Claire is already in danger again; being a woman in these here parts means she will always be at the risk of rape.

As well as physical vulnerability, women were expected to submit. ‘Across Britain, women were assumed to be weaker than men…it was necessary that they submitted to male authority.’ (Anne-Marie Kilday, Women and Violent Crime in Enlightenment Scotland). Well that may be so, but not this woman! Not our Claire!

Our heroine was a nurse in World War II, and here in the 18th century she gets down to business fixing people who are broken (first and foremost, the broad-chested love interest, Jamie). In her forthright way, she demands bandages and clean water from the Scottish horsemen. She is met by sputtering protests, reminding viewers that in this world, women don’t make the rules.

After spouting a stream of swear words, Claire is chided by one of the men. ‘St Paul says, ‘Let a woman be silent, and -‘‘ ‘You can mind your own bloody business!’ Claire replies. ‘And so can St Paul.’

The oppression in the name of God continued throughout Scottish history. An estimated 2,500 people (mostly women) were trialled for witchcraft in Scotland, but these occurrences faded in the 18th century. Gabaldon herself told an interviewer the last recorded witch trial was in 1722, but nonetheless wrote this judicial misogyny into her story.

In the television series, the Scots take Claire back to their castle, where she establishes herself as a healer. Later she is accused of witchcraft, and forced into a trial attended by a mob of angry villagefolk baying for lady-blood.

It is stories like these that re-imagine history from a female perspective. Outlander and the original novels by Gabaldon make for a women-inclusive history. Like Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book and The Secret Chord, the series recreates her-story.

These meticulously researched pop culture gems value women’s stories in historical narratives; they provide an alternative to male-centric education, and they confirm the importance of women, who have been present and active in history since time began.

Image: Outlander


Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 9.46.09 PMLou Heinrich is a proud book nerd who writes about pop culture and woman. She has been published in The Guardian, Daily Life, The Lifted Brow, and Kill Your Darlings, and is the co-founder of Subtext Collective, a literary org for young people in Adelaide. She tweets at @Shahouley.

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