Thursday, March 13, 2014

Remedial history months

It's Women's History month. For those who might wonder why we still need such a thing, Ruth Rosen explains spells it out in an article published at Open Democracy last Sunday. She begins:

"Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin "helping" them. Such a world does not exist —never has” —Gerda Lerner
Aside from the Republican’s relentless War on Women, let me offer you another reason why even one token month is still necessary to America’s political culture.

I’ve just finished reading a book titled The Season of the Witch, written by David Talbot, who founded in 1995, the first web magazine in the United States, known for breaking investigative journalistic stories. The book is an evocative political, social and cultural history of San Francisco from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Since he dealt with every trend and movement, often in overheated prose, I kept waiting—and waiting--for him to describe the sudden explosion of the women’s liberation movement.

Astonishingly, Talbot didn’t even write one paragraph about the women’s movement, which certainly transformed American political and social culture more profoundly than did the two chapters he devotes to the San Francisco 49ers football team.

Did his publisher tell him that half the population was dispensable? Did his agent convince him that including feminism would diminish the appeal and profits? Is he just ignorant?

This is just one example why we need Women’s History Month in the United States. It’s to prevent students, teachers, intellectuals and writers from forgetting about half its population.

The origins of this month reflect an era in which the grassroots efforts of a few prescient individuals created a national month dedicated to informing the public about women’s lives. It was during the late 1970s when a growing number of women, grasping the subordination of women in the present, began to wonder about what women did in the past. The idea of “women history” was still very new, and yet a group of women on the Sonoma County (California) Commission on the Status of Women initiated a "Women's History Week" celebration for 1978.

Rosen goes on to recount some of the history of the area of the discipline called "Women's History." And then she concludes:
Fast forward to 2014 and one has to ask, so is Women’s History Month still necessary? Didn’t we transform the curriculum in all the disciplines, change laws and customs, legalize abortion, force everyone to call us Ms. instead of Mrs. and Miss, and teach students not to faint when a female professor entered the room?

Unfortunately, it is still necessary to have a token month devoted to women’s lives. Every generation of little girls and women need to learn their past so that they can imagine a future in which gender equality is the norm and not the exception.

Understanding women’s history is also an essential antidote to the Republican’s “war on women.” We are no longer in the midst of just a “backlash” against the women’s movements, as was true in the 1980s; feminism is the object of a serious right-wing attack against women’s rights, especially women’s reproduction freedom. And even our friends and allies, writing about San Francisco’s cultural history, clearly need reminding that women transform history.

No one ever expected Women’s History Month to change our political culture, at least not by itself. It doesn’t change the double standard that still exists when a woman runs for electoral office. (Did she spend too much or too little time with her children?) Nor does it change the endless scrutiny of women’s appearances—attacks against Hillary Clinton’s thighs or descriptions of Wendy Davis, a Democratic candidate for Governor of Texas who stood up for women’s reproductive rights as “Abortion Barbie.”
I've sometimes wondered, and I know that others have, too, why we still have such remedial "token" months as "Black History Month" (which was last month) and "Women's History Month." Black people should be an integral part of all non-specialized histories of the US, and women should be, too. When I was a university teaching assistant in the 1970s, one of the professors I taught for excoriated me after a visit to one of my classes, chiding me with the assertion that "Women and children are irrelevant to 19th-century European history." He, I already knew, was clinging to what Lerner calls "a world that does not exist"--and did not really exist even in the 1970s. That was forty years ago. Do people still cling to worlds that shove anyone who isn't a white male so far to the margins that those worlds, too, do not really exist? We know they do. Will we still need these token months forty years hence? You tell me.

1 comment:

Claire said...

Actually, the clock has rolled back on "Ms." It's been about eight or nine years since I actually heard someone say "Ms." in the wild. I'm consistently called "Miss" by strangers now. A few years ago, I asked some younger friends of mine (one 27, one 30) what they thought "Ms." meant and they said they didn't know, and they didn't know how to pronounce it either. One said she thought it was short for "Miss," the same way that "Mrs." was short for ... something. When I explained, they were mind-blown. They'd never heard that ... and never thought about the fact that men's titles weren't defined by marital status. College-educated professionals in the working world, they were.

It's really hard for me not to think that this is of a piece with the conservative war on women. But how could it be? The people who are teaching children in schools are mostly liberal, and they're folks like me, who grew up being taught "Ms." (I learned that it was proper usage in typing class and current events, because when I was a child, my parents thought "Ms." was stupid.) Why aren't teachers teaching "Ms." anymore?