“In the Eighteenth-Century, Women were not allowed to become Highwaymen.”
Rest assured, I didn’t say that. Neither did any of my students. This was an exam howler I overheard being reported at a conference. I know nothing about the identity, institutional affiliation or even nationality of the student who made this comment in an exam.
The marker of the offending script went on to explain that she was obliged to laboriously write in the margin:
“NOBODY was allowed to be a highwayman in the eighteenth-century. Being a highwayman was NOT ALLOWED. It was a capital crime – a hanging offence in fact. It’s hard to see how transvestism could have aggravated the nature of a career that was always supposed to conclude with a short sharp drop.”
The taboos associated with being a highwaywoman, or gentlewoman of the road, are uneasily assimilated to a modern civil rights agenda therefore. Indeed, I’m thinking that even in the twenty-first century, if a woman were to ride up to you on horseback, wave a firearm in your face and threaten you into handing over your wallet – there might well be legal consequences.
Now of course there might have been quite a number of women highwaymen, for all we know. Certainly there were women pirates (e.g. Ann Bonny) and women serving in the military. The eighteenth-century was patriarchal but inefficiently so. There have always been “transgressive” women who have enjoyed performing traditionally male roles. There are two main characters who vie for our attention as female highwaymen (despite the fact that they were NOT ALLOWED) – Lady Katharine Ferrers, a seventeenth-century royalist noblewoman of the Civil War era who was rumoured to have taken to the road and who provided the inspiration for a rather enjoyable movie starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason (The Wicked Lady 1945), and a rather more plausible candidate in the shape of Mary Bryant, who is re-imagined by Timberlake Wertenbaker as a major player in her influential and oft performed play Our Country’s Good. It seems that women might in fact have engaged in highway robbery despite the fact that they “were not allowed”.
What’s revealing about the story of this exam howler, is the kind of complacent eschatology of feminist achievement it assumes. The idea that everything gets better and better for women would be inspiring and useful were it not so regularly accompanied by the assumption that everything is now just FINE. Furthermore, it ignores the proven historical reality that forms of exploitation and practical enslavement can get worse over time, not better.
This connects with a broader prevalent disengagement with history that is all the more troubling. In the imagination of many students, the world is divided into just two historical epochs – THEN (when everything was bad) and NOW – when everything is fine. I call this the “back in the day” syndrome…