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A Day in History Showcases New Scholarship
February 2, 2007

On February 2, Trent University’s History Department gathered for its third annual "A Day in History" event featuring the latest research conducted by professors in the department.

Covering a wide spectrum of topics and timeframes, several of the presentations this year nonetheless revealed an interesting thematic convergence: the various forms of power wielded by women throughout history, both formal and informal.

Beginning with Professor Fiona Harris Stoertz’s paper on fosterage during the high Middle Ages, the role of girls and boys in cementing inter-family loyalties among the ruling classes was explored from new angles. She argued that the medieval practice of sending young children to be raised by other noble families as a gesture of political allegiance should not be exclusively interpreted as evidence of parental neglect and abandonment. In fact, often it resulted i n close relationships between foster parents and their charges. Young girls in particular were expected to learn the languages, cultures and ways of their foster families as this preparation was crucial to their influential role over their husbands when married.

Professor Ivana Elbl gave a lively presentation about the life of Dona Beatriz de Meneses, a Portuguese noblewomen from the 15th century. Dona Beatriz’ ability to amass considerable personal wealth and maintain her independence revealed strategies available to upper class women to gain social power within the ruling elite. Interestingly, Prof. Elbl’s research also illuminated the formal legislative structures of the day that protected women’s property rights and how as landowners women were able to develop into skilled administrators.

Complementing this theme of women’s ability to find and exploit power mechanisms within patriarchal societies was Professor Jeannine Hurl-Eamon’s lecture describing the subsistence strategies of military wives during the 18th century. By uncovering the variety of methods these women used to earn extra income, such as oyster selling, pawning objects and working as laundresses, Prof. Hurl-Eamon stressed the importance of looking at military wives more as agents of survival than simply as passive victims dependent on their husbands.

The important "behind the scenes" political role of Susan Anne Howe (wife of Joseph Howe, Nova Scotia’s Father of Confederation) was discussed by Professor Carmen Varty. Following a thorough examination of the Howe’s correspondences to one another, Prof. Varty revealed women’s significant participation in political life and also how men’s emotions affected their political actions. According to Prof. Varty, the lack of recognition given to Mrs. Howe’s active contributions to Canada’s political formation through her husband betrays the intrinsically masculinist nature of the public sphere, as compared to the private.

Rounding out the event were two more politically-oriented presentations. Having just successfully defended his Ph.D thesis days earlier, Professor Ismael Montana spoke about on the 1846 emancipation decree of Tunisia, followed by Professor David Sheinin’ s presentation on the role of the nuclear sector in 20th century Argentina.

Robust exchanges between faculty, students and guests characterized the day, reflecting the best of Trent’s close-knit learning environment.