Recovering Women’s History
by Charlotte Kramon
We are proud to publish an issue dedicated to examining the unique experiences of females throughout previous decades. Girls, teens, and women of all ages and backgrounds carry their own stories that have been shaped by different aspects of history. We cannot discuss these stories without acknowledging the historical buildup behind them. Social Studies instructor Dr. Carolyn Purnell told the GIRLTALK Magazine some of the ways women’s roles in history, such as editors of philosophical texts, have been neglected, and what we can do to change that.
In what ways has the connotation and perception of the word “feminist” changed throughout history?
“Feminism” defines a range of political movements more than it describes one, specific thing. The term “feminist,” like any politically charged term, has undergone many changes and shifts in connotation since its introduction in the late nineteenth century. In academic circles, feminism has gone through at least four waves, and the concept of post-feminism. In broader pop culture, it has been applied so broadly and has been so hotly debated that the same actions (e.g., wearing makeup) can be seen as both feminist and anti-feminist, depending on one’s perspective. And, again, as with any political term, it has been used with every possible undertone, from glowingly positive to damningly negative. Feminism refuses a single definition, which, in many ways, is a good thing, since there is no singular way to be a woman. But despite its many meanings, applications, and valences, feminism is still a useful term and a useful concept. Debates over its nature highlight the ways that women (and society at large) still disagree over the fundamental notions of femininity and women’s power. Those discrepancies often signal where there can be improvement or where women can advocate for themselves.
People argue that women aren’t represented in museums, monuments, etc, because factually males have played more important roles in history. Is this true? What can be done to overcome this rhetoric?
It is not true that men have played more important roles in history. Exceptional women have existed in all ages, and they have played crucial roles in the development of the world as we know it. That said, traditional descriptions of history tend to neglect the fact that women often worked within systems of power that kept them out of the public eye. In eighteenth-century Europe, for instance, women frequently edited philosophical texts, performed scientific experiments, and wrote moving literary masterpieces, but these achievements, if they were publicized at all, were often credited to the male members of their families.
There are a couple of ways that we can correct the underrepresentation of women in museums and monuments: 1) Recognize the ways that women often worked within patriarchal social structures to innovate, rather than rebelling against social norms outright, but they still managed to achieve remarkable things within those boundaries; 2) We need to alter our notion of what constitutes an “important” moment in history, which is worthy of commemoration. Women have accomplished amazing intellectual, social, and cultural feats, but many current memorials are dedicated to more traditionally male roles or occupations, like military involvement, or to achievements accomplished under the aegis of institutions, like those of scientific academies, from which women were excluded.
Studies show that visual representation, such as monuments, have a significant effect on girls’ motivation and beliefs in their abilities. That is why there is growing effort for things like increasing representation of monuments representing females who made a historical impact. As an educator, can teachers do to show girls the profound effects women have had on society?
I think that we can start to show girls the profound effects that women have had on society by including a much more diverse array of samples. There are many ways to be remarkable, and curriculum should tell stories about women’s power in a variety of different contexts, instead of just limiting the idea of a powerful woman to rare, canonical figures like Cleopatra and Elizabeth I (who, don’t get me wrong, are fantastic!). I also think it is important to have frank conversations about how history has been written. In a male-dominated society, it is likely that women’s stories will be preserved and handed down less. That doesn’t mean that women had no impact, nor does it mean that we have to overlook women. Instead, we have to look at how they managed to construct meaningful, significant lives even in the face of adversity.