Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Radical Act of "Writing Women into History"

Women's History Month presents an opportunity to us all to change a historical narrative that places women at the margins of society, and by doing so, change the world.

As the great feminist historian Gerda Lerner once wrote, "What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are 'the lessons of history'? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past." History cannot provide us with all the answers, but it can shape our understanding of both our past and present.

Women's History Month was created thanks to the activism and lobbying of the National Women's History Project (NWHP) and feminists around the country. In 1980, the year NWHP was formed, women made up just 3% of the content in history textbooks, and many children (and adults) assumed the absence of women in history meant that women just didn't do anything. Howard Zinn, the recently deceased historian and activist, wrote in A People's History of the United States that, "It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status."

Every year Women's History Month has an official theme, and the theme this year is "Writing Women Back into History," which could not be more appropriate. Women's History Month is not about fun facts or random lists of female trailblazers (though I enjoy learning about things like that). It is about changing the way Americans view their society and reshaping our historical narrative. As a kid I remember learning about Betsy Ross, Clara Barton, and Molly Pitcher, held up almost as exceptions to the rule, the women who actually did something. If we want to truly recognize the contributions of women, we need to totally subvert the way we study history. We need to consider not just the history of the rulers and military heroes, but that of the mothers, wives, laborers, slaves, rebels, and ordinary people whose lives were average but real. There is so much to learn from social history. That is not to say we should stop seeking out the stories of extraordinary women (my life has been made so much richer by learning about women like Ella Baker, Emma Goldman, Dolores Huerta, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Fannie Lou Hamer), but that to truly be radical feminist historians, we need to discover the stories of the forgotten and pushed aside.

Women's history is the people's history--learn it, share it, and use as a tool to change the world.

This article was featured in our March 2010 monthly Choices eZine. Sign up for our alerts to stay up-to-date with the latest feminist news and to receive the monthly eZine.

1 comment:

PatRice said...

Great post, Emily!