‘The same rhetoric and fear’: Janina Ramirez on transphobia and history

Janina Ramirez, one of the UK’s best-known historians, reflects on gender fluidity throughout history, transphobia and Twitter trolls

June 2, 2023

“I created my own historical method,” reflected Janina Ramirez on the imaginative approach behind her latest book, Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages Through the Women Written Out of It, which she bills as an attempt to reconstruct the lives of “disenfranchised” women “who have been kept out of the past” and which recently shot to the top of the Sunday Times best-sellers list.

“I knew I was doing something different this time. I’d start each chapter with a discovery but also consider other things beyond historical records – people’s landscapes, their bodies, where they grew up, what they looked like – because I wanted to get a sense of that person and their voice,” continued Dr Ramirez, a research fellow at the University of Oxford who, thanks to her series of BBC Four programmes over the past decade, has become one of Britain’s best-known historians.

Reconstructing the lives of the 50 medieval women profiled in Femina – some well documented, such as the mystics Julian of Norwich or Hildegard of Bingen, and others entirely forgotten – often involved looking behind the sometimes unreliable documents on which historians usually rely.

Often, the records of these women’s lives “have been deliberately destroyed so we can’t hear their voices, but technology can show us ways to understand people through their bodies”, said Dr Ramirez.

One analysis of a skeleton unearthed in the City of London showed a woman who had spent her first years in 14th-century Africa in relative affluence, but who was probably trafficked to England on the spice routes of the Mediterranean. “You can do a good job of getting a sense of someone – where they grew up, what they ate, their work – but it’s hard work,” said Dr Ramirez, who has taught at the universities of Winchester and Warwick since gaining her PhD from the University of York.

For a book steeped in close reading of ancient parchments, Femina has also proved controversial given its reflections on gender roles throughout history. In Norse societies, Dr Ramirez explained, the harsh climate necessitated long sea journeys by traders – or raiding Vikings – which often left women to take on what are normally considered masculine roles. “You didn’t have time in those societies to differentiate what men and women were doing. If someone was coming to attack your village, everyone had to fight.

“One of my takeaways from writing this book was how recent our role as the ‘second sex’ is: women of the medieval period didn’t have a lot of the rights of their male counterparts, but the genuine construction of these narratives of race, class and sex are only 200 or 300 years old,” Dr Ramirez said. “We have leant into these ideas; they’ve entered our subconscious, which is really frustrating.”

Suggesting that “gender non-conformity” has been around for centuries has nonetheless proved divisive, particularly after Dr Ramirez tweeted critically last year about J. K. Rowling, whose online posts on transgender issues have divided opinion, including within academia.

“I made a declaration of trans allyship on Twitter...but, if you look across the world’s history, it’s not a new topic,” said Dr Ramirez. “There is just an appetite at the moment for trans people to fulfil the ‘black, Irish, dogs’ role, or that of homosexuals in the 1980s – we’re using the same rhetoric and fear of ‘the other’, which is not fair.”

She continued: “Many communities have the idea of a third gender – even in Islam’s earliest writings, they will talk about the idea of men at the front of mosques, women at the back and a space in between for those of indeterminate sex.”

Dr Ramirez said she supported “robust discussion” on trans issues and had little time for student efforts to disinvite philosopher Kathleen Stock from speaking at the Oxford Union. “I’m not about silencing – I understand students feel that this is their space and want to decide who is invited as their guests, but I do want balance.”

With debate so polarised and toxic on Twitter, many scholars have given up on the platform, but Dr Ramirez said it was still a force for good in academia.

“When Twitter came along, it was a platform to have my own voice – like my medieval women, it’s hard when you can’t represent yourself fairly,” she added.

But she has also seen the ugly, misogynistic side of Twitter too, including “rape threats, ‘I know where you live’, ‘where your children go to school’ and repeated insults about my appearance. I’m not high-profile – I barely creep on to BBC Four – so it makes you realise there are a lot of angry people out there.”

Despite all this, Dr Ramirez said she felt huge gratitude for her career as a public historian. “Ninety-nine per cent of the time I get love and affection for my work – I feel hugely lucky.”


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