JO ANN KAY MCNAMARA, FEMINIST SCHOLAR: A PIONEER IN TRANSFORMING MEDIEVAL HISTORY
by Dorothy Helly
Jo Ann K. McNamara died in New York City May 20, age 78, from complications from shoulder surgery in March. Her most recent book is a translation of Paris in the Middle Ages (2009), written by Simone Roux. Prof. McNamara was a scholar of world-wide renown. Her most widely acclaimed book, Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millenia, was published by Harvard University Press in 1996 and reviewed in the New York Times Book Review by Antonia Fraser. She argued that women as nuns have struggled through the ages to create a separate life which subverts the traditional gender roles assigned to women in every era. The body of her scholarly work has focused primarily on the history of the early middle ages and has ranged broadly over the areas of religion, gender, institution-building, and an attempt to reperiodize and reinterpret the years from 400 to 1100.
Dr. McNamara was a pioneer in making visible women’s roles in medieval society, including the role of women in religion, bringing these perspectives into the mainstream of writing about medieval history and inspiring a new generation of medievalists. Scholars who undertake gender studies and medieval history today automatically turn to McNamara’s contributions. The broad sweep of her innovative thinking turned to rethinking the transition from Roman to medieval times. She early began to argue forcefully that Roman culture did not decline and fall in the 5th century (pace Edward Gibbon), but continued to influence subsequent centuries down to the 12th century.
Jo Ann McNamara was also among the first scholars to insist that the paradigms of women’s history could be applied to men’s history. In her first essay on the subject, she coined the word “Herrenfrage” to convey the concept that gender for men was as problematic and socially constructed as it was for women. This article, “The Herrenfrage: The Restructuring of the Gender System, 1050‑1150,” appeared in Medieval Masculinities (1994), edited by Clare A. Lees. Accordingly, McNamara saw the great ecclesiastical reform movement in 11th-and12th-century Europe as an effort to make celibate priests the new “manly men,” a concept of masculinity meant to replace the warrior as hero and still serve as the role model for Christian society. In this context, she wrote of “chastity” as comprising a “third gender.” Embracing chastity also made both women and men more nearly co-equals than were the two sexes whose separate reproductive roles in secular society underpinned their distinct and hierarchically assigned gender roles.
McNamara’s commitment to exploring new questions regarding sex and gender in the midddle ages was a part of a life of concern about the world around her. As a student in the 1960s all the burning issues of civil rights, the Vietnam war, and the women’s movment made her very politically aware. She actively joined antiwar activities and when the National Organization for Women brought a legal suit against the “men only” policy at McSorleys’ Old Ale House in New York City in1970, she joined a sit-in to make the point. She maintained the life of a political activist and sharp critic throughout her life, along with her deepening scholarly questioning all she had been taught about medieval history as a graduate student. Doing so, she was replicating the experiences of other feminist historians for whom the women’s movement opened up new question about their own lives and the lives of women in the past.
Prof. McNamara’s academic research began with a book on Giles Aycelin: Servant of two Masters (1973). Thereafter she turned to path-breaking work on women, gender, and power in both secular and religious contexts. For this work she was honored by two volumes of medieval history. The first, published in 2003, entitled Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, is co-edited by Maryanne Kowaleski and Mary C. Erler. The volume is dedicated to her and published an essay by her reflecting on the first article she and Suzanne Wemple wrote in 1973, “Women and Power through the Family Revisited.” The second volume of essays dedicated to her is Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe (2008), edited by Lisa M. Bitel and Felice Lifshitz. It is inscribed: “To Jo Ann McNamara magistra doctissima et mater omnium bonarum.” Other essays in this volume examine many of the new interpretations she had brought forward in a series of articles that followed the publication of her book A New Song: Celibate Women in the First Three Christian Centuries (1983).
Asked to contribute an autobiographical essay to Women Medievalists and the Academy (2004-2005), edited by Jane Chance, McNamara wrote about her active participation in the causes about which she felt deeply. She entitled her essay “The Networked Life,” and with a nod to “sympathetic men,” she wrote: “I look back today at the women who befriended me in graduate school, the women who hired me and the innumerable women I knew and those I never knew who have struggled in my lifetime to secure our place in the academy and to advance a scholarship that gives us the means to understand our own experiences. Sisterhood is powerful indeed and it provides a working model for all humanity.”
Born in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 1931, McNamara moved every few years with her family, following her father who held a job as an executive with General Motors. Her early education was in Catholic schools run by nuns. Thereafter, she spent two years as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania as a theatre-arts major and completed her undergraduate education in Columbia University’s School of General Studies as an English major in 1956. To “recoup her finances,” as she put it in her autobiographical essay, she worked in the military for two years in France as an entertainment director. Back at Columbia University graduate school, she worked as a secretary in the Geology Department. She now turned to medieval history, earning her Ph.D. in 1967. By that time she had begun teaching part time at Hunter College, in its evening session, which was coed, the college itself becoming so in 1964 after a long tradition as a woman’s college. She joined its history department full time when she had earned her doctorate, and later, in the 1990s, became as well a mentor to graduate students at the City University Graduate School.
At Hunter, McNamara took part in the founding of the women’s studies program in the mid 1970s. She joined sister historians in the New York area to form a branch of the Coordinating Council on Women in the Historical Profession, established in 1969 as a caucus within the American Historical Association. She also joined the new Institute for Research in History, created to meet the needs of historians with and without an academic affiliation in the fiscal crises of New York City in the mid 1970s. She helped found a research group in Family History and continued to meet with it until her death, as she did with an equally long-lived interdisciplinary Hagiography research group she founded for studying the lives of saints. She played an active role in the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women from its beginning in1973, insisting on including medievalist in its programs and co-chairing the entire conference in 1982.
Jo Ann McNamara married Eldon Clingan in 1959, retaining her own name, and was divorced from him in 1973. She is survived by her son Edmund Clingan, who has followed in his mother’s footsteps to become a professor of history at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, in the field of modern German history. Her death is greatly mourned by friends and colleagues in this country and throughout the world.