Invisible Man and Wonder Woman? More Wonder Man and Invisible Woman: Why Women’s History Month is Still Essential
It’s with great pleasure I bring you this thought-provoking guest post from Katie Collins, submitted for our Year of SuperWomen anniversary month.
It seemed too good to be true. The cover was glossy and inviting, sitting temptingly on the shelf next to all the serious history magazines. The title proclaimed that it was about both men and women in history, the great historical figures. Naturally I picked it up and flicked through it, desperate for an excuse to expend a few of my hard-earned pounds on it and take it home with me.
Sadly, no, it really was too good to be true. As I glanced through the articles my heart sank to my stomach and made a home next to my kidneys. Hitler, Churchill, Ramses II, all were proclaimed with photos, pictures, bold text declaring their power and influence (in Hitler’s case the ability to murder millions of innocent people simply by shouting a few political slogans). Just as I was sinking into despair I found a glimmer of hope; Joan of Arc! At last I had found a woman!
Like so much media of it’s type, the magazine had promised so much and delivered so little. When I went to the contents page I found a grand total of three women. For a magazine that had both genders listed on the front it really was unbalanced. Like so much else it was happy to talk about the men and the women were a little side note, something that meant they could proclaim equality because “look, females are included!” when actually we were being kicked in the teeth. Sadly I put the magazine back on the rack and walked out of the shop, my money still in my pocket.
Approximately ten seconds later the rage hit me. Why is it so difficult for female figures in history to be noticed? Why do we, as women, have to be so damned grateful for every little scrap that is thrown our way? On a forum I’m on someone started a topic with the title “Happy International Women’s Day!” in the title. The sixth post was from a man; “So when does it get to be international men’s day?” No idea mate, perhaps the other 364 days of the year? (Actually there is an international men’s day, some time in November)
You get the same complaints during the whole of March. “Oh, it’s women’s history month? Why don’t men get a history month? No one pays any attention to men in history!”
It is a common complaint, but in reality men are the prominent figures in history. Everyone knows at least one Roman emperor, everyone knows at least one King of England or one President of the United States. In schools our history is designed to look at the leaders, who were generally the men. If you go into a bookshop and go to the history section then most of the titles will be about men and male historical figures. Ask someone their favourite male figure in history and you will get a very wide range of names from multiple countries; a dozen US Presidents, every King of England from William the Conqueror onwards, the key players in the Russian Revolution, and that doesn’t even start to hit all the scientists, inventors and authors.
Ask people to name a female historical figure and then it becomes a bit more difficult. You’ll get a ponderous look followed by one of several really well-known names; Marie Curie, Mary Seacole, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth I of England. Believe me when I say I don’t want to use this article to denigrate these amazing women or their incredible achievements, because I don’t. But I cannot help but notice that the list is minuscule compared to the number of men you would get.
When you sit down to think about it, you start to realise that most of the women in history that we know are less famous and more…infamous. Go back a few hundred years and the historical female figures of those times are remembered because they acted like men, dressed like men (Hatshepsut) and out of necessity, behaved like men. This led to condemnation from contemporary historians and as a result we have plenty of sources about them, albeit rather biased. In more recent times we have less condemnation, but instead women are not remembered for being just as good as men. To achieve history they have to be BETTER than men. Marie Curie is famous not just because she discovered radium but because she was the first person ever to be awarded two Nobel prizes. Had she only received one she would be as memorable as Bertha Von Suttner. If she hadn’t received any she would be in the same group as Cecilia Payne.
In my second year at university I took a course in Women in the Ancient World. In the introductory lecture our Professor told us that when he had originally studied his degree there was no such course, they had to campaign for it. At the time I took it for granted that all that changed, but looking back eight years later I am now starting to have my doubts. Last month I published the first of what I hope will become a series of books on women in history. While researching it I was stunned to find so many incredible woman whom I had never of before. I had to ask myself why I had never heard of them before, why had none of my friends heard of them either?
Why is it that so many women who have been involved in our past and shaped our present and future are invisible? Why did I spend my childhood reading comics and wishing that I could be as clever as Oracle, or as strong as Wonder Woman? Why did my teachers never tell me about Irena Sendler, who saved thousands of children from the Warsaw Ghetto? Why did I learn about the poets who were inspired to write by their experiences in the First World War, but never heard a mention of Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed by the Germans?
We like to think that we can be like the women we see in comics. Strong, brave and above all HEARD. But in order to build up our voice we need to go back and remember those women who were strong and brave before us. So many of these women are now invisible, forgotten and buried by the passage of time. Women’s History Month is essential for this, so we can share our favourite female figures, educate each other, and educate ourselves. Until we have an equal footing in history during the rest of the year, we will always need our own month for it.
Katie Collins studied a BA and MA in ancient history, during which time she developed an addiction to tea. She lives and works in west London, and in 2014 released an ebook series called “30 Women in History”. She is currently working on volume 2, and drinking lots of tea.
Check out her book, 30 Women in History, and follow her on Twitter @classiccreative!