HTTPers Conclude Women’s History Month
We want to reflect back on the posts and related events during Women’s History Month by answering the following questions:
- What have we learnt?
- How has it affected our understanding of historical topics?
- What can we take from it to make history move forward?
Gaelle: What strikes me is the way the articles HTTP has published during Women’s History Month appear to deal with two related but different issues: the situation of women in a given historical context and the influence of gender norms on a given historical situation. So for instance with Ian’s piece on the forced feeding of the Price sisters, one can see that on the one hand, this was about women’s political involvement but on the other, and perhaps more strikingly, gender (the fact that these were young women in particular) contributed to the significance granted to the event. Women’s history thus not only brings forth women as ‘forgotten’ historical actors, but also highlights the gendered nature of social reality in an acute manner. This also became clear to me when speaking, recently, to a researcher working on Zionist women in interwar Lithuania. For some reason, the first thing I thought of asking her was whether they were ‘feminists’. Her answer was very interesting. She said, ‘they understood themselves as such, yes, but from today’s perspective of course, they were not.’ This resonates with Cherish’s findings about women’s aspirations in the 1920s. Studying women’s history is always, on some level, studying the history of female oppression / emancipation at the time and in relation to our current and changing understanding of this, as brilliantly explained in Melissa’s contribution. If the female Zionists aspired primarily to be good wives, then they are not feminists according to our contemporary definition. But their political stance was nevertheless a form of emancipation from the ties of Jewish tradition and this needs to be acknowledged. This bears resemblance to the situation of women in National Socialism discussed by Tiia. Clearly the Nazi model was patriarchal, but how should we make sense of women’s involvement in the system if it did appear to offer them new options? I feel that these two levels are what makes discussing gender in history so interesting, but also so complex. It is an area that forces historians to be especially reflexive about much that was and is taken for granted, then and now.
Cherish: The posts published by HTTP have been important in dismantling the embedded gendered stereotypes and expectations placed on women, which in some cases popular history can purport. In my post on American women during the 1920s, recent research has correctly forced historians to question the assumptions which we might make about ‘new’ changes to women throughout history. This was also emphasised in Melissa’s post on the differences and similarities between First, Second and Third Wave feminisms. Similarly, looking at women’s history continues to highlight the importance of measuring progress in equality – as Holly argues in her post, just because women gained the vote did not automatically lead to full equality within the political arena…far from it. We need to re-evaluate our own criteria for ‘success’ to move away from the patriarchal understanding and assessment of women’s progress which the conventional narrative continues to assert. This was especially pertinent in Ian’s post which questioned why women received less recognition for their hunger strikes compared to their male counterparts. The posts for Women’s History Month has shown to me how we as historians need to stand back and examine how we study different aspects of women’s involvement in many areas of life and question how we come to measure that progress.
Tiia: Reading both Cherish’s and Gaelle’s comments, and all the posts from this month, I’m awed and inspired. Not only have we made new friends with the guest writers who contributed this month, but everyone also has learned a lot… myself included. I enjoyed Simon’s post on Polish women, as I hadn’t known about the topic at all, although he works on a similar period and geographical location. All the posts really brought new ideas and a fresh perspective on well-known topics.
Muzaffar: I’ll be honest, my knowledge surrounding women’s history was next to nothing. When the idea that HTTP was to contribute to WHM was floated in the (virtual) office we all jumped to make it a reality starting with our group reflection to launch the month. We had no less than 10 articles and no shortage of contributors; we even had an unprecedented number of guest writers (some of which Tiia has recruited permanently; she can be rather persuasive).
Tiia: Ha, Muz! You’re the salesman here, I should be learning from you!
Muzaffar: The reach of WHM is therefore quite extensive, so why is women’s history only now finding tratction? And when will we reach a point where a ‘Women’s History Month’ does not need to exist? It has caused me to rethink much of my approach to history. History should not be a gender exclusive endeavor, it would be highly ignorant to say that male actors were singularly responsible for what history is. This approach ignores the role of women and their contribution to society and politics, especially in communities outside of Europe. My favourite WHM piece this month has to be Abigail’s The Life and Afterlife of Mary Wollstonecraft (one of the earlier posts).
Simon: At the start of this month, I was in more or less the same boat as Muz – aside from a general awareness that virtually every historical topic could (and indeed should) be explored from a gendered perspective, my knowledge of women’s history was pretty feeble. Each of the WHM posts has therefore been an eye-opener in its own way, and I feel I’ve learnt a tremendous amount. I particularly like the balance we’ve managed to strike between posts offering a broad overview of certain aspects of women’s history (Holly’s and Melissa’s contributions come to mind) and those introducing us to more specific and underexplored corners of the field (Muz’s, Tiia’s, Katelyn and Ian’s posts, for instance). The breadth of subjects covered in these posts has also made it clearer to me just how ubiquitous issues related to female emancipation are in history. I’m not yet sure how much what I’ve learnt will shape my own work, but I’m convinced that in the longer term, anything that brings us closer to thinking about these issues as an integral part of any form of historical enquiry, on any topic, is invaluable. Women’s History Month, and other initiatives like it, are the best way for our discipline to mature.
Holly: Reading the HTTP articles for Women’s History Month has reminded me how easy it often is to approach at history in a narrow or parochial way. Even ’Women’s History’, which actively seeks to uncover the omitted or obscured narratives of women, needs to strive to be holistic. My own article focused on the experience of Women in the British political system, whereas articles such as Simon’s, Muz’s, Cherish’s and Tiia’s, focus on women of different nationalities. This illustrates the importance of looking at ‘Women’s History’, and history more generally, outside of the confines of the ‘national’ framework of analysis. Although to be holistic when studying history is an inevitability difficult task, Women’s History Month has reminded me of the value an international perspective can often bring.
Tiia: Lastly, thank you to everyone for contributing — either by writing a post or reading posts this month. It means a lot to all of us that our articles are being read and we’re able to show new sides to history. Hopefully we will have a great Women’s History Month 2017!