CORVALLIS, Ore. – The ways in which we understand and describe what it means to be a woman may have deeper roots than we think, according to a new book by Oregon State University’s Tara Williams.
In her book, Williams argues that some modern notions of femininity had their beginnings in the era of the bubonic plague of the late 1300s, and in the cultural shifts in its aftermath. “Inventing Womanhood: Gender and Language in Later Middle English Writing” was recently published by the Ohio State University Press. It is the first published book by Williams, an associate professor of English at OSU.
Williams, who is an expert on the medieval literature and culture, set out to explore why certain gendered words – such as “womanhood,” “femininity,” and “motherhood” were used for the first time during the English medieval period.
“Previously, the way women were described was mainly as a wife, maiden or widow,” Williams said. “After the plague wiped out such a huge amount of the population, opportunities opened up for women to expand their roles in society, and language had to be created to describe these roles.”
In addition, relationships were changing in this period and the rise of companionate marriages, as opposed to marriages arranged primarily for practical concerns or purposes, began to shift language.
“What it meant to be a wife was changing, and that whole pre-wife period became problematic,” she said. “Words had to be created to define women in these new roles.”
Williams said the word “manhood” is documented in English two centuries before “womanhood” ever makes an appearance. Even today, she said society struggles with what to call women.
“My personal pet peeve is the word ‘female,’ as in ‘There are females here,’” Williams, said, laughing. “Today, we still struggle to find the right words. Woman doesn’t always seem to apply, but neither does girl always fill that linguistic gap.”
The ongoing debate over gendered language – such as describing a room full of people as “guys,” or using terms such as “gal,” “ chick,” or “lady” can be traced to the Middle Ages – Williams said.
“We can see in the writings of authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer that people were working out how to use these new words, and what they really meant,” she said. “And I’m not sure we’re clearer today. Certain ideologies become encoded in language. So perhaps there is still a linguistic gap to fill when it comes to notions of womanhood.”