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Infanticide Trials Gave Women Power In The Past

November 29, 2010

Women’s relationships with other women played an important role in the peasant society of the 18th and 19th centuries. The women lived, worked and gossiped together, and felt a sense of belonging and responsibility in this community. A new thesis from the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) reveals that these communities also served as a breeding ground for women’s power.

Previous research on women has often focused on their position relative to men from various perspectives. Women’s relationships with each other, and the importance of these relationships for society as a whole, have seldom been studied, which is why the thesis Women worlds and infanticide is plugging an important gap.

Helena Hagelin’s research takes infanticide and women’s roles in connection with it as its starting point. By studying 197 cases from the Gothenburg archives and the Göta court of appeal in 1700-1840 she has been able to show that women were far from powerless, and that the key to women’s influence in society is to be found in the groups of women she calls women worlds in her thesis.

“Women’s relationships with each other ““ women worlds ““ were important in bringing them together and giving them both power and responsibility,” says Hagelin.. “My investigation focused on the responsibility that these groups took in the context of exposing out-of-wedlock pregnancies and infanticide.”

One of the conclusions drawn in the thesis is that women could wield power and that women worlds played an important role in the local community. Telling the truth was one way of maintaining women’s position in society.

The credibility of women is evident not least from the fact that they were frequently called as witnesses in the district courts, and that considerable importance was attached to their witness statements. They accounted for more than half of all witnesses, and an even higher percentage in terms of useful testimony.

“I hope that the thesis will give people more of an insight into what life was like for women in the past,” says Hagelin. “My results could challenge the notion of powerlessness. I don’t by any means believe that women had the same power as men, but my research shows that they were able to shape their lives in some ways, and also the community they lived in.”

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