“I became more of a feminist than I ever imagined.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
The more I learn about Eleanor Roosevelt, the more I like her. I also like to think we could have been BFFs, but I think that’s how it goes with heroes. Like good old ER, I haven’t always identified as a feminist, nor have I always been a women’s historian, but today those are two integral parts of my identity. For people who think like me in those regards, every month may be Women’s History Month, but March is the designated month of observation. I suspect that I know more than a few people who probably wonder “Why do we need Women’s History Month?” I still tend to think, “Why not?”
Six years ago, I wrote this blog post in which I wondered why people are afraid/skeptical/hesitant of women’s history. The post emerged from my experiences earlier that year studying military history at a famed institution (note: today I think fondly on what I learned during that seminar, think highly of the people who ran it and attended it with me, and am aware that things have changed in seven years.)
My question remains a relevant one, and near the end I hint at the related question: why are people afraid/skeptical/hesitant of feminism (or downright hostile toward it)? I’ve heard many answers to this over the years, and each time, the responses seem to come back to the basic idea that most Americans refuse to let go of a fundamentally incorrect definition of feminism.
For the record, here’s the definition:
As a bonus, here’s one of my favorite feminists talking about feminism and the He for She movement at the UN.
As a field, women’s history is fairly young. It’s older than I am, but younger than my mom. The origins of Women’s History Month date back to the late 1970s. I was eight and not yet reading my beloved American Girl books when Congress passed legislation to create the month-long observance.
If you asked me twenty years ago about studying women’s history, I’m pretty sure I would have raised my eyebrows, looked askance, and asked why anyone would bother with that. Like Eleanor Roosevelt, in the years since then I have become more of a feminist than I could have foreseen, and am probably less of one right now than I will one day become.
Feminism and women’s history often – but do not always – go hand in hand; as one of my favorite women’s history bloggers notes, they aren’t necessarily one and the same, but certainly feminists are a key audience of women’s history.
Whether you think of yourself as a feminist, mistrust/distrust or even hate the label; whether you are a woman or not, women’s history matters to all of us. At its most basic level, women’s history challenges us to look beyond the obvious, to understand the experiences of women who came before us and how they shaped the world we live in. At a simplistic level, it can be about women’s contributions; while these are always valuable to learn about, women’s history is about more than “firsts” or exceptions or notable moments. As the study of history began to expand in the 1960s to take into account different identity groups – African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, women – one of the things that happened is that doing history became much better. The study of women’s history (as with other minority histories) has created new ways of examining history, new ways of asking questions, and new ways of looking at evidence.
My favorite example of this is Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale (see a preview from the documentary here). This book came out of Ulrich’s work with Martha Ballard’s diary of being a midwife in what is now Maine between 1785 and 1812. While that may seem mundane or straightforward, you should take a look at some of the diary entries. To the untrained eye, it may look like not much, but get the right detective on the case, like Ulrich, and you can piece together so much more about what women’s experiences on the early frontier were like. Ulrich’s work was groundbreaking, but she is certainly not alone.
One of the things I love about studying women’s history is how it encourages us to look beyond the obvious; to look deeper and to re-evaluate our perspective. This might be unsettling, but it’s also immensely enlightening and rewarding. Sometimes, this might prompt us to reconsider what we once believe to be true. Always, it helps us better understand other people’s experiences.
Women’s history is not about undermining men’s experiences or other identity group experiences. It’s about acknowledging that there are other perspectives and experiences that have shaped the world, understanding them, and telling them over and over until the narrative more accurately reflects the breadth of people’s experiences. It’s about recognizing that while men’s history matters, history is not just made by those who run militaries or dominate in political office, but by the every-day quiet lives we all lead.
In the end, broadening our understanding of human experience is about empathy. Empathy is one of the most important qualities we can possess, but in my experience, it’s one of the hardest things to learn. I think it comes easier when we open ourselves to learning about others. Studying women’s history is one way we can do just that.
To learn more about Women’s History Month, see links embedded in the post above, or consider these resources:
National Women’s History Project: Why Women’s History?
Women’s History Month (US government website)
Women’s Equality is a key UN issue: Sustainable Development Goal #5: Women’s Equality
Note: I’ll update next month about Fake News and teaching research, but I wanted to write something in honor of Women’s History Month.