Saturday, March 28, 2009

Women's History Month

In past years, I've had more time to spend writing about WHM, but even though I haven't been able to write anything about it this year until now, I've been giving it quite a bit of thought. One of the things that I keep noticing in articles about women's history is a tendency to pick out some woman or another who did some job or another and say, "Look! She did this thing!"

That's all fine and dandy, and I wouldn't want to take away from anyone's accomplishments, but quite frankly I can't think of anything less interesting than reading yet another ode to a twentieth century woman who was a lawyer or a doctor or a scientist when everybody knows that "women didn't do that." Why? Because it's all HOGWASH. Women DID do it, at least they certainly did in the twentieth century, and we all know it, so it's disingenuous to keep pretending that it's such a complete surprise to find a woman who did whatever this thing is that has apparently left the writer breathless.

I think it would be more valuable for those of us who care about women's history to actually pay a bit of attention to the women in our own histories because if we don't document their lives, then who else is going to? Turning that thought to my own life, it occurs to me that the last thing I'd want to be remembered for was for any sort of job I'd done! I'm not a mother, but I know that if I were, I'd want to be remembered for that. I'd want to be remembered as a daughter, and a niece, and as a friend. I'd want to be remembered as a wife. If I were a sister, I'd want to be remembered for that. I'd want to be remembered for trying to do good somewhere, some how. But the thought of only being remembered for doing some job, doesn't make me happy at all.

Auntie was in the Foreign Service for thirty years, but it isn't the job itself that's memorable about her. It's that she's so intrepid. She was in all kinds of dangerous hardship posts like Damascus during the 1960s, and Nigeria, and various other ones. She had a fascinating career (more than one; she had another after she left the FS), and it's part of who she is, but what's important about her isn't what jobs she held.

My grandmother went to college during the Great Depression. She worked some as a teacher, and also as a clerk in my great grandfather's law office when he was the County Clerk. I doubt if it would have mattered much to her to be remembered for any of that. I do, however, think it would please her to know that I remember her for teaching me to read Shakespeare when I was nine years old. And for making the best orange cake on the planet. And for being a defining influence on my life. I also think others would have known and loved her as a wife, a daughter, a sister, a mother, and a grandmother. And if she'd ever thought about that (And who knows? Maybe she did!) she would think herself well-served by our memories.

If women's history is ever going to be more than a freak-show, I believe it has to move beyond trivializing the activities and accomplishments of everyday women. Not just the ones who become Supreme Court Justices. It has to include the woman next door who bakes cookies for her kids. And those of us who ARE women are the ones who have to make this happen. We have to look at the women in our lives and we have to pay attention to the value of what we're all doing. We have to look at the lives of our grandmothers and our mothers, our aunts and our cousins, our sisters and our friends, and we have to look at our own lives, and we have to acknowledge that we are all making history and it's up to us to recognize it and acknowledge it in each other.


Nanci said...

I totally agree. In fact, I was sort of thinking about this same stuff myself today.

I was grocery shopping in Safeway, picking out my green onions and minding my ow business when the loudspeaker came on and played some canned stuff about WHM. Then, they proceeded to regale me with takes of Marian Wright Edelman and her accomplishments. Sure, she's done a lot of good work, but do we need to be canonizing her in the produce section?

I think WHM will really make a leap forward when we start recognizing women for ALL that they do, not simply reading resumes to one another.

Gillian said...

Can't we do both? Be complex and demanding and very real?

Doubtful Muse said...

Are you suggesting, Gillian, that we aren't being complex and demanding enough if we give historical consideration to the women who bake cookies as well as the ones who become Supreme Court Justices?

I hope not, because my whole point is that I think we are in danger of missing an enormous amount of women's history because we keep honing in on these repetitive stories of The Female Senator and whatnot. It isn't that I want to take away from their accomplishments -- in the US,the first elected female senator, Hattie Wyatt Caraway, was from my own state, Arkansas -- but so what? She's been noted. More than once.

I'm proud to be from the state that elected the first woman to the senate, but I think we need to move past this animals-in-a-zoo thing. Women run corporations; they run countries; they perform surgeries; they write books. We're only allowed to give a shit about them if they're the non-pop-music equivalent of Britney Spears? Otherwise they're not complex and demanding enough?

I can't accept that. I also can't accept that a job is the only thing that allows society to assign us enough importance to be noteworthy. I refuse to believe we are still in the 13th century and only the status of nobility or femme sole gives us the right to a place in history.

We keep demanding equal rights, but we don't even grant them to our own sex!