Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Have you ever noticed that women’s history is dominated by the same kinds of women? It’s always the Top 100 Important Women in History or the “remarkable” story of this historical heroine. If she wasn’t “brave,” or “remarkable,” or “influential,” she rarely (if ever) gets a mention. This is a major bugbear of mine. Why does a woman have to conform to one of these labels to have a voice? Is her story not worth mentioning if she wasn’t hugely influential, in some way or another? And who defines these labels? What does it actually mean to be “brave” or “remarkable?”
Let me make something very clear from the start, though. I am not criticising the fact that we have so many books, articles, videos, TV shows dedicated to women from the past. Neither am I suggesting that we should stop celebrating women’s achievements or significance. I just feel that we are always celebrating the same kinds of women and, in doing so, we are sending the dangerous message that women are only worth remembering if they have broken some kind of social, political or cultural mould.
This assumption - that a woman has to break some kind of mould - is a problematic one because it rests on the idea that if a woman fails to do this then there is no real story to be told, or that it is impossible to even tell a story. We do have to be practical when it comes to the availability of sources. But just because a story isn’t easy to trace, or just because a story might not be immediately fascinating, it doesn’t make it any less valuable or worthwhile.
What I have found as both a history student and a teacher of history is that women’s experiences of the past are often added-on to the male narrative or treated as distinct and separate subjects. In a classroom, we might only talk about women when we look at the suffragettes, for example, or study the reign of Elizabeth I. Of course, I understand the constraints of time and resources. There’s a lot of content to wade through, especially at GCSE level, and a limited number of hours in which to teach it. But we never seem to make it clear to students that ALL history is gendered - even if the gender element isn't obvious.
How do we actually teach it, then? This isn’t an easy question to answer and I don’t have all the answers. However, it is clear to me that our starting point should be the historical invisibility of women. Where we do have records, that’s great. Where we do have women who broke the mould, also great. But we need to make very clear that just because there aren’t records, or just because we’re talking about the story of men, it doesn’t mean that we should just forget the existence and experiences of women. When we’re teaching the Norman Conquest, for example, let’s have a conversation about the lack of female claimants to the throne, about the maleness of power. Let’s have a conversation about how William’s consolidation affected women. How many times have we talked about Anglo-Norman marriage and never even considered how being married off to someone who doesn't even speak your language might have affected the women concerned. I'm not saying we start making sweeping generalisations, but some acknowledgement of those human stories should be made.
If we are serious about creating a more equal and more tolerant society, then it starts with our history books. It’s time to focus less on “brave” and “remarkable” women and start talking about ordinary women, the invisible women, and those who were denied a voice. Broadening the historical narrative and normalising the female experience, in all its diversity, is the first step we need to take.
The Herstorian is taking that step. I work with educational publishers who want to create more diverse materials and I'm writing a book that will showcase the marginalised voices of the Industrial Revolution. As I say, I don't have all the answers, but we've got to start somewhere, right? If you've got experiences or ideas, I'd love to hear them.
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