Archive for March 1st, 2007

Is It Really Her Story?

Thursday, March 1st, 2007

On a recent LJ post a friend of mine wrote, she stated in passing, quite emphatically, that she didn’t like the term herstory – it’s history, damn it. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that – on the one hand, I don’t like the word herstory either, but on the other hand, I do support Women’s History and classes that focus exclusively on that. Here we are, in Women’s History Month (the 20th one since its inception in the US in 1987 – and after deciding I was going to do a bunch of posting for it I was embarrassed to find out that Women’s History Month in Canada is in October), and people continue to ask why it’s necessary – why aren’t we just integrating women’s history into the core curriculum of history? Why are we making it separate?

The first reason is that we’re still playing catch up with a bunch of things that people just don’t know or don’t realise. Like, for example, that the term feminism was first used in France in 1405 to describe the writing of Christine de Pisan. Before I started looking into Women’s History, I had never heard of Black Farm Woman (Schwarze Hofmannin in German), and I’ve studied the Peasant Revolts that she was a big part of. I’ve heard of Joan of Arc, of course, and studied her as well, but I’ve never seen anything on the other women who followed her, either driven by faith, madness, or ambition. I knew of Isabella & Ferdinand, but had no idea of Isabella’s reputation as a Warrior Queen who rode into battle.

Secondly, what’s being done to integrate women into history classes is being done poorly. Students walk away from classes complaining that they just learned about certain women “because they’re women – not because they did anything”. (As though they don’t learn about Prime Ministers just because they’re Prime Ministers, regardless of how little they accomplished. Kim Campbell, anyone?) Where women fit into history isn’t being shown as part of the greater whole of history, put tacked in, and no one is learning anything from it.

Thirdly, and related to the first two reasons – educators don’t know as much about Women’s History as they would need to in order to properly integrate it into classrooms. When teachers don’t yet know the details of what Black Farm Woman did, they don’t know how to add her into the study of the Peasant Revolts, The Reformation, and Luther. She seems pushed in because she’s an unknown, still, to the teacher.

But this only talks of learning about certain women in history – pointing out the importance of women like Queen Melissande, who ruled Jerusalem during the same crusade that brought Eleanor of Aquitaine to the city. But other things are included in Women’s History, things that might not necessarily need to be included in your overall comprehensive This Is History class. And just like we can take classes that specialise in Maritime History, or History of Politics, or History of Christianity, classes like Women’s History or a History of Feminism can be illuminating and interesting.

To me, it seems like educators are fumbling around, attempting to work out a way of teaching about women’s contributions without overwhelming the course or making it An Issue. And whereas I can understand the arguments against Women’s History Month and specific classes about Women, I think that they will still be necessary as long as educators continue to not know how to integrate their classes properly.

In order to talk about Women’s History in all its permutations, I’m going to write about two different types of history this month: the history of important women, and the history of women – that is, things that are specifically related to women or are specifically put forward by them. Examples of the former are easy – Eleanor of Aquitaine, Melissande, Black Farm Woman – all women that are fascinating in their own right, not only for what they did but why. The latter will include things like the history of Women’s Shelters (called Refuges in Australia), how women got the vote, women’s contributions to the Crusades, and prostitution (not that all prostitutes are women).

I hope this is something you will find interesting to read along with. Knowledge of history isn’t expected or required, and I’ll answer any questions I can. I’m still learning myself, despite my studies of history, and I want to learn how to make history interesting to other people, as well as myself.