Women's History, a Complex Issue, Still Worth Celebrating


In many ways, Women's History Month feels like a vindication, a public recognition that there are gaps in the historical record. Yes, women have histories as rich and complex as the more narrowly focused, male-centered histories traditionally written about in schoolbooks.

I get excited about women's history month every March: the posters, the lectures, the exhibits, the postings for women's history celebrations on college campuses. Thirty years ago, when the second wave of feminism hit this country, the idea that women's history was valid, and in fact history at all, was not yet part of the popular psyche.

Now we have an entire month to celebrate it. And it's a good, solid month, with 31 days and honeysuckles and warm, sunny afternoons.

I'm not being facetious here. Well, not exactly.

I truly do love the idea of celebrating women's history and setting aside time to focus on it. But, as my young feminist naivete begins to wear a little thinner, I'm starting to see some problems with the way women's history is defined and cast in the sphere of popular culture.

Like black history, women's history is still stuck with an adjective. The adjective "woman," while tremendously important, also feels like a liability sometimes. It leaves room for traditionalists to further marginalize the history of women, separate it out from History with the capital "H" and relegate it to the footnotes.

It might sound, then, like just a problem of semantics. But the real problem is categories. Do you rally around an identity, or category, because as a marginalized group you can gain strength from it? Or do you attempt to break down that category and show the way it's culturally constructed? It's the famous double-edged sword that comes with creating a politics of identity.

I propose that "Women's History" is, in fact, a fiction. It's a fiction in the same way that phrases like "women and minorities" are make-believe.

In this fiction, "women" really means white, middle-class, heterosexual women. The identity "woman" doesn't just subsume racial, class, ethnic, regional, religious and sexual identities. Is an African-American woman first an African-American or first a woman? How about a Latina woman? A Jewish woman? It seems an absurd question: She's both, at the same time. At any given moment, categories are mutating and intermingling.

I worry that in the attempt to right a historical wrong — the exclusion of various groups of women from various parts of society — we're oversimplifying, thinking that because we've learned about Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the suffrage movement we've learned the gist of 19th-century women's history. In no way am I suggesting that the history of white, middle-class women isn't valid and interesting. But it isn't the only history, and it doesn't exist in a vacuum.

Take, for example the case of two other 19th-century women: Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs. The first is well-known; the second is not. Both were writing around 1860. Dickinson was well-educated at private schools and wrote from the comfort of her Amherst, Mass., home. She wrote about death, life, spirituality, love and loneliness. Often thought of as an eccentric with layers of meaning piled into short poems, she's become dear to generations of readers.

Jacobs, by contrast, was a slave girl. She wrote her slave narrative from an attic crawlspace she inhabited for seven years while in hiding from her master. Her moral and sexual dilemma is central to her tale. As a 15-year-old enslaved black woman, she had no way of defending her virtue and protecting herself from her lascivious master. So, she choose to have an alliance with a white man whom she trusted; she had two children by him but, ultimately, he couldn't, or wouldn't, help her.

Eventually, Jacobs escaped from slavery with her children, but not before enduring the humiliation of having her freedom purchased by an old friend, a white woman.

Two very different women's histories. Both lived the limits of their gender but in very different ways and with very different consequences.

To learn about and celebrate these different histories is a wonderful thing, and if we pick the month of March to spend a little extra time doing it then so much the better.

But we must see women's history in the complicated, tangled, sticky historical web it exists in, no matter what month of the year it is.

JUDI KETTELER is a Cincinnati free-lance writer.

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