Until the late 1960s, U.S. culture tended to ignore the profound contribution women played in American society, a grievous oversight shared by many other cultures of the world. Women have always played important roles in the lives of those around them. But, it is only relatively recently that historians have taken seriously what some feminists have referred to as “her-story,” a term coined by Robin Morgan in her 1970 book, Sisterhood is Powerful. Morgan and others challenged the assumptions made by most of the world’s “his-torians,” charging them with having masculine biased assumptions about the people, activities and events that have been worthy of memory for later generations. The concept of “her-story” has spawned books (like this one), writers’ workshops (example here), theater productions (like this), and even organizational networks (like this and more).
Bringing the role and impact of women from the past into full reflective view is not a matter of “revisionist” historiography. It is actually a corrective action in an almost universally flawed process of telling the story of our human roots and the individuals making special contributions to our families, communities, societies and cultures down through the centuries. And, the sin of historical omission is not just a female problem.
As the Peruvian liberation theologian, Gustavo Guiterrez noted in the early 1970s, history is written by and about the economically and politically dominant voices of any given time period. This perspective filters out many of the most important stories of a generation, distorting not only our understanding of the past, but skewing the way we make sense of the present. One of Guiterrez’s projects was to create a case for telling history from below, to write the human narrative from the perspective and the contributions of the poor and to develop the Christian tradition’s theological thinking about the role of liberation in this life, as well as the next. This gained him the title of the father of liberation theology in some quarters, but he was riding the wave of a more profound awareness of the enormous gaps in our remembering of what’s worth remembering from the past.
Many pioneering women were committed to same project as Guiterrez, but in relation to the role of the female. They tried to recover, re-discover and celebrate the women who have shaped our world. Historians like Mary Blewett and Joyce Oldham Appleby learned the trade of the historian and applied their skills to uncovering the tales left untold by the chroniclers of the past who over-emphasized men and largely ignored the role of women. Some, like Linda Nochlin, focused deficits in one particular cultural area. In a famous 1971 article she asked the world’s art historians an embarrassing question: “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Of course, there had been great female artists; it’s just that the art history establishment ignored them.
While all women have been slighted by history, those from racial or ethnic minorities have been particularly invisible to historians. Fortunately, far-sighted individuals from the past did what they could to leave breadcrumbs for later generations. The Quakers, as an example, helped to save the memory of Old Elizabeth, an African-American woman who was born into slavery but became a traveling preacher and founder of a black orphanage. In 1863, with Quaker assistance, she published her life history at the age of 97: Memoir of Old Elizabeth: A Colored Woman. She is just one of thousands of women who left an indelible mark on the people around them, but never caught the attention of those writing about the past.
Once enlightened, one might think it a fairly easy task to surface the accomplishment of women through history. But, surfacing a more accurate and sustained reflection on the contributions of an entire gender seems amazingly difficult for many societies. In 1987 the U.S. Congress decided it was so difficult that American culture needed to declare the month of March as Women’s History Month, in the hopes of eliciting greater awareness of the female gender’s impact on society.
Some specific fields of study have felt a similar need to awaken awareness of the role of women shaping a particular area of the human condition. During the month of March in 2014, for instance, the Royal Society in London is conducting a “women’s history writing event.” Scientists will meet to collectively update Wikipedia’s entries on female scientists. Why? Because the women who have made major contributions to science usually have thinly written biographies, if they are mentioned at all. The Royal Society intends to remedy that deficiency, at least for the world’s largest open-access encyclopedia.
It seems odd that it has taken so long for women to get recognized for the significant roles they have played in human history. The Bible is filled with strong and effective female leaders. The Book of Judges tells the story of the tough female judge and prophetess, Deborah, and the even tougher Jael, who drove a tent peg through the temple of the tyrannical Sisera. (Jael was the kind of woman you could take on a date to a Blues club even in the toughest Chicago neighborhood). Jesus had strong, courageous women around him, and they funded much of his ministry (Luke 8:1-3). The Koran gives special reverence to Mary, the Mother of Jesus (Surah 3:43), and the Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija Bint Khuwailid, was a smart and successful businesswoman when she met the Prophet. Many of the most powerful gods in the Hindu tradition are goddesses. The word for goddess, in fact, shakti, means power or energy.
Women have also played strong roles in every society: from gutsy queens to the bold abbesses of medieval monasteries. The business world has had the likes of the young 17th century French widow Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, who built a champagne empire through her family label, Maison Veuve Clicquot, which is still going strong. In more contemporary politics you have such commanding figures as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in England; or the first woman elected to run a Muslim nation, Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto; or the facto leader of the European Union, Germany’s indomitable Angela Merkel; or the former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
After 45 years of working at a more accurate representation, the role of women in history has improved. But, there are still huge gaps in our understanding of the past, with nearly half of our history still missing. There are practical problems with this omission. If women seem less important to our past, they are less likely to take their rightful place in our present. Although more than one in two humans in this nation is female, only one in five women are members of the U.S. Senate, less than one in five are in the U.S. House of Representatives, and only one in three comprise the nation’s population of physicians and lawyers. We don’t even need to get into the differential in pay for equal work and the raft of other issues of inequality still borne by women of this nation and nearly all other societies on this planet.
It is also unbalanced in religious organizations. Although women are 20% to 25% more likely to worship on Sundays in the U.S., and most volunteers in religious organizations are women, females provide miniscule part of the leadership. The Faith Communities Today 2010 national survey took a multi-faith representative sample of all the religious congregations in the U.S. (11,000 in all) and discovered that only 12% of the communities had a woman as a senior or sole leader. In mainline Protestantism the figure more than doubles to 24%, although for Evangelical communities it drops to 9%. Although Catholic laywomen have run congregations for many years, particularly in rural areas, and Mormons serve in volunteer “lay” leadership, those positions are not even listed officially as senior leadership for their congregation.
There is a connecting line between how we remember the role of women in our past and the role they play – or are allowed to play – in the present. Until we fix our memories we are unlikely fix our present.
I remain hopeful for our future because I believe in women, their ability to rise above the limitation placed on them, and the amazing capacity to endure and persist. It has been often said that if men had to deal with the pain of birth the human race would have become extinct long ago. One day in the future, women will take their rightful place in the human collective memory of the past, and they will have access to positions of influence and leadership that is proportionate to their percentage of the human population.
In the meantime, let us hope that our species is not selective in what it remembers about the struggle women had to undergo to find respect and justice. As Karen Fowler notes in Memories For Sale, you can’t treat the past fairly if you pick and choose what you remember. “Ignore the turmoil, chaos and pain – and the truly great memories would not shine with such luster.”
Women will one day shine in our understanding of human history. But, their luster will be magnified because for so many years the chroniclers of the past tried to hide or extinguish their light. But, women, and the men who loved them, will not allow this to happen forever.