Women, History, and Disasters: Q&A with Rachel Small

March 25, 2024
Woman with strawberry blonde hair, glasses and black shirt standing outside

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we spoke with Rachel Small, a Fulbright Scholar and Ph.D. candidate in the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies, or DMLRS, in the Department of History. In August 2024, Rachel will defend her Ph.D. dissertation which analyzes social experiences and cultural understandings of natural disasters in early modern Germany. She argues that men’s and women’s experiences of the impacts of disasters differed based on many factors — not the least of which is gender. 

Rachel came to the University of Arizona in 2016, drawn in by the international reputation of DLMRS as a top early modern history graduate program. She was a 2021-2022 Russell and Dorothy Bilinski Fellow and currently works at UArizona’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Institute as a grants and research coordinator. In this Q&A, Rachel dives deep into the incredible capacity of women — specifically from the 17th century into the modern day: their resiliency, ability to repeatedly pivot in the face of trauma, persecution, and war, and how the communities they create are life-giving and lifesaving.


Have you found compelling instances of historically marginalized women in your research? How can Women's History Month be utilized to highlight these overlooked narratives and enhance our historical comprehension?

Part of what drew me to the study and practice of history was the prospect of unearthing and sharing the silenced or forgotten stories of women’s experiences. Women’s History Month offers us the space to share stories of individuals and communities that have been suppressed; WHM provides a platform to connect across cultures, geographies, and time. When we center women’s stories in public forums, it allows individuals and communities to identify and share in their common human experiences. For women, such lived experiences are childbirth, rearing children, practicing joy and celebrations, surviving violence, and carrying and disseminating generational and learned knowledge of the land — of a culture, of a civilization. 

Most of the stories about women that I encounter in my research have long collected dust in the archives, unseen by people for generations—hundreds of years, in some cases. I have found court cases, broadsheets, and printed sermons from the 17th century that document varied allegations against individual women for causing catastrophic floods, or for instigating urban fires. In one case, a woman who resided in the northern German city of Hamburg in the late 1600s was publicly accused of causing destructive a windstorm and urban fire that decimated the craftsmen’s neighborhood. A local sermon on the event alleged that the woman’s impending divorce had caused God’s wrath to come upon the city, in the form of the firestorm. While the city was unable to legally substantiate these claims against her, the woman still suffered social ostracization during a trying time of marital separation in her life. In the context of disaster, when community support can mean life or death for many individuals, the Hamburg woman faced deepened economic, spiritual, and psychological precarity. 


Women’s experiences have been shaped by connections between capitalism and the environment — specifically how economic structures change women’s relationships with their natural environments. Can you talk about a tangible manifestation of that? 

Peasant women, in particular, who lived in pre-capitalist and proto-capitalist Germany frequently sustained their families and household economy through farming, harvesting, and selling surplus produce at local markets. Such women also utilized regional crops such as hops, flax seeds, or hemp to produce beer, oils, flours, and fabrics. Frequently, peasant women farmed and harvested these crops on common lands—that is, agricultural land that was not privately owned and was maintained and stewarded by local communities. In the context of proto-capitalism, governments and wealthy entrepreneurs privatized or purchased land, limiting access to the soil, water, and flora and fauna that had traditionally provided critical sustenance and products to local populations. 

In the wake of a disaster, when individuals and communities most needed access to natural materials for re-building lost structures or to lands for subsistence foods, recently privatized land became a point of major contention between the haves and have-nots. No longer were women able to access the common lands to harvest crops and create income from the sale of surplus products. They lost access to an entire way of life and to economic independence after lands were privatized. Without access to common lands and to the fruits of the lands, women’s relationship with their environment altered. They no longer could freely use ancestral knowledge of harvesting or creating profitable and useful products from their local ecological systems, and thus, women’s roles in the socio-economic sphere were curtailed.


How do women stand out in enduring historical catastrophes? Can you discuss a specific historical event or movement that significantly influenced women's lives?

Women’s reproductive roles become a uniquely difficult and pressing factor amid catastrophes. When we think about the various stages of reproductivity (conception, gestation, labor and birth, nursing, and rearing of children) in the context of war or famine, we can pinpoint the various and devastating ways that a lack of access to food, shelter, or stability could be lethal for mother and child. Moreover, women as reproducers bear the fate of perpetuity of a culture or a community. In the context of the 30 Years War (1618-1648), during which Catholics and Protestants fought to dominate the political and religious landscape of the German lands, war tactics were aimed at eliminating entire religio-cultural practices and ways of life. The division of the traditional Christian church into two major sects, Catholics and Protestants, was a historical event that deeply impacted women on every level. Within the framework of disaster studies, we can see how a religious schism turned into a rampant war that specifically harmed women. 

In my research, I have come across several horrific stories of how opposing military forces would strategically target pregnant women, cutting fetuses from their mothers’ wombs, to permanently wipe out entire communities of people. Women are resilient, and in these same chronicles of war, we find them fleeing war-torn cities and following military trains, laboring while walking, stopping only to birth their child, and standing back up to continue their flight to safety with their newborn in tow. 

Such acts of incredible resilience would have been nearly impossible without these women having access to a female community that helped individuals bear children on the edges of battlefields, in refugee camps, or even in the comfort of their own homes. 

Understanding the past is crucial for shaping a more equitable future. Can you share any specific examples of how your research contributes to broader social conversations about gender equality?

My work reveals the cross-cutting, complex ways that individuals and groups experience disasters. When we look at how episodes of famine, disease, floods, and war impact individuals, we can identify myriad ways that gender influences such experiences. Women are at greater risk of being marginalized from economic stability when access to land or food becomes limited; their roles as nursing mothers become infinitely more difficult, if not impossible when their caloric intake dips drastically low in response to famine; and women have often become ideological and real targets of blame for disasters, used as a release valve for heightening social tensions and pressures. 

As we look forward to building equitable systems of disaster response and recovery, it is imperative to be aware of these old patterns that disproportionately harm those who have marginalized access to natural resources and social systems of power. If we don’t consider how each social group experiences catastrophe, we cannot adequately or equitably respond to a crisis or rebuild in a way that mitigates future disasters.