Christine Ekholst

If you are a woman planning to commit a crime, you might want to travel back in time to medieval Sweden. In that country’s first legal code, women could not be held responsible for crimes they committed. Instead, the woman’s father or husband was punished.

“But as women were given more legal and economic rights, such as the right to inherit property, that changed,” says Prof. Christine Ekholst, who is working in the Department of History on a three-year contract. “The introduction of the death penalty was another factor. It was one thing to pay a fine because your wife committed a crime, another to face death on her behalf.”

Ekholst describes herself as a legal and gender historian. A native of Sweden, she completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stockholm University, but has travelled extensively both during her student years and afterwards. She did a postdoc at the California Institute of Technology and another at McGill and has taught at Carleton University.

Her studies of the development of women’s legal responsibilities have now shifted to include research on women and violence, working with student Colleen Wood. “In medieval Sweden and other parts of Europe, violence, especially violence to protect others, was seen as an essential part of being a man,” she says. “Men had to protect their family and their honour. I was interested in how women who were violent would be seen – would they be considered less feminine? Would they be ridiculed or punished?”

She discovered that the laws seemed to expect women not to use violence, or to use it less than men, but they did allow for some “violent revenge.” For example, men who caught their wives in bed with another man were permitted to kill their wives and lovers. Women who caught their husbands with another woman could only kill the other woman.

In times and places where the law provided that the cheated-upon husband was only allowed to kill his wife’s lover, the woman’s rights were also reduced: she was only allowed to mutilate the woman she caught with her husband by cutting off her nose. “The woman’s right to violent revenge was always less,” says Ekholst. So were her other rights: women could inherit, but a daughter inherited half of what a son would receive.

Ekholst has also examined traditional stories that reveal attitudes towards violent women.  “Men were expected to stand up for their rights and for their families and communities,” she says. “There was an honourable kind of violence that involved fighting with fists or swords.” Ekholst sees a connection between this and the “stand your ground” legislation in some U.S. states that gives extended rights to self-defence.

Other types of violence – such as poisoning – were seen as less honourable.

What about those violent women? Women who used violence in honourable ways, like men, were sometimes admired. Those who used more feminine types of violence – such as slapping – were ridiculed. Today, Ekholst points out, we frequently have movies where very attractive women behave like very violent men. “There is a fascination with women using violence,” she says. “They keep their femininity by being very pretty but break the stereotype by being so violent.”

Another project she’s working on examines how sexual transgressions were used in medieval propaganda against kings and queens in England, Castile (now Spain), France and Sweden. “Kings were expected to be the essence of manhood, masters of the kingdom,” Ekholst explains. “Their queens were supposed to be subordinate to them.” The queens were, of course, still very powerful. With those standards in mind, people seeking to overthrow or criticize the king would often attack them by accusing them of sexual behaviours considered inappropriate.

“Kings might be accused of sodomy and sexual relationships with other men,” says Ekholst. “Because of the stereotypes, this marked the king as weak and effeminate and not able to rule. Queens would be accused of adultery and having too much of a sexual appetite. These behaviours were often linked with the idea that she’d be influenced by the other man, and might become unruly, ambitious and too interested in national affairs.” Accusations about having sex with men ranked above other, more concrete things the king might be charged with, such as misappropriating funds from the church, and could even trigger an outright rebellion.

And perhaps not that much has changed: Ekholst points out that sexuality and sexual issues are still part of playing politics today – as demonstrated by the way same-sex marriage has become a hot topic in U.S. politics.