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Whose history is women's history?

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Reprinted from by Denise Oliver Velez

Hidatsu woman: Mrs White Duck, 1908 photo by Edward C. Curtis
(image by Library of Congress)

As we segue from Black History Month into Women's History Month, the shift in images across the internet, on official sites, and in museums moves from black to white. Yet if we are to truly tell the her-stories of the women of this land, should we not start at the beginning with the women of the First Nations?

As I searched through photographs in a variety of archives, there were many to choose from, but few even bothered to have a name for the portraits, which simply get titled "Indian woman" or "Native woman," or perhaps "Zuni woman." Often when women's history is addressed somehow to be "inclusive," we, the women who are often not included, are added in as part of the celebration, and we are then native women, or black women, or Asian women, and white women are simply "women."

Women's history for far too long has been a line of laundry flapping in the wind--faces of white suffragists, pinned next to Rosie the Riveter, billowing next to prominent white feminists and politicians. Clipped onto the line are snippets of Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, for color and attempts at diversity. The theme for 2015 from the National Women's History Project is "Weaving the Stories of Women's Lives," and yet the first weavers of this nation are barely part of the weft of the fabric. It is also not a dead thing of the past, since women are making history each day, yet often it is the dominant narratives that are reported, and the struggles of those women who are "invisible" are appropriated, as discussed so movingly by Ajijaakwe on her blog. Similar responses have erupted from women of color, questioning Patricia Arquette's use of "we" in her Oscar ceremony remarks. Just who actually is "we?" Far too often, it does not include me.

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Since 1996 there has been a plan to establish a National Women's History Museum in our nation's capitol. Although it is currently an online resource only, there has been an ongoing struggle to get legislation through Congress to establish an actual building. That effort has been rife with controversy, from a wide variety of sources, political and academic.

Amanda Marcotte, wrote about the history fraught with problems last December, for Slate in an article titled The Long, Controversial History of the National Women's History Museum, Which Still Does Not Exist:

A national museum on women's history seems like it would be the sort of thing that everyone could get behind, until you consider how fraught so much of women's history actually is. The idea for the museum first started in 1996, with the formation of a foundation advocating for its existence, and they've been slowly building support for it ever since. Now, that support has finally coalesced into Congress putting funding authorization into a defense spending bill. However, while the Republican-led House passed the bill that would allow it finally to be built, Sen. Tom Coburn is now holding it up, citing objections to the public lands package that includes the museum. Coburn objects generally to the federal government owning more land for things like museums and national parks, but he has always had it out for this proposed museum specifically, telling Gail Collins of the New York Times in 2010 that we don't need it because there's a Quilters Hall of Fame in Indiana and a National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Texas.
The Gail Collins op-ed Marcotte referenced, Unhold Us, Senators, concluded:
Beginning in the late 1960s, the restrictions and prejudices that had hobbled my sex since the beginning of Western civilization began to be questioned, repudiated and overturned. It happened so fast that it was easy to forget all the women who had dreamed and fought for that moment but never lived to see it. And it was easy for the next generation to grow up unaware of what happened.

I lived through what was perhaps the greatest social shift in the history of our culture. You all did, too, unless you're young enough to have been born into a brand-new platform of gender equality that was created, really, just for you. There will never be a time more appropriate to celebrate this great fact.

One of the front-line, right-wing opponents was Michele Bachmann:
Congresswoman Michele Bachmann spoke out against the National Women's History Museum, saying from the House floor Wednesday that the museum would "enshrine the radical feminist movement."

"I rise today in opposition to this bill, because I believe ultimately this museum that will be built on the National Mall, on federal land, will enshrine the radical feminist movement that stands against the pro-life movement, the pro-family movement, and pro-traditional marriage movement," the Minnesota Republican said before voting against the proposed House bill.

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"The legislation lacks the necessary safeguards to ensure the proposed museum will not become an ideological shrine to abortion that will eventually receive federal funding and a prominent spot on the National Mall," Bachmann said.

Bachmann is spouting words from the well-crafted right-wing script and campaign mounted against the bill and museum.

The plans, however, are not only being challenged from the right. The article, The National Women's History Museum Apparently Doesn't Much Care for Women's Historians, documents numerous critiques that were voiced by women's historians who had been part of an advisory group.

On a snowy day in late January, 2011, Wages, Applebaum, and ten or so local historians came together for the first regional meeting. Applebaum staffers circulated a glossy prospectus with a collage of famous female figures on the cover and a mock-up of what the museum might look like inside. According to the large-font text, the central theme of the museum was to be the struggle for women's rights and the triumph of the suffrage movement.

The historians found the focus on "great women" and the acquisition of formal political rights to be outdated and much too narrow to capture the manifold ways in which women have shaped U.S. history. We were also dismayed to note that nearly all of the women pictured on the brochure were white, and several (Mary Wollstonecraft, Olympe de Gouges) not actually American. This sort of thinking about history typifies the NWHM style. Its approach is encapsulated in this statement on its website: "Women's history isn't meant to rewrite history. The objective is to promote scholarship and expand our knowledge of American history." While most women's historians would agree with the second part, we would disagree with the first. We have set out to rewrite history.

Indeed, most of us long ago abandoned the "add-women-and-stir" approach to women's history, whereby one simply attempted to find female parallels to prominent male figures and patterns of accomplishment. Instead, we have developed new categories to analyze American history through women's eyes, such as how they used their own organizations to shape fundamental protections like mothers' pensions and the Fair Labor Standards Act, how they reconfigured family life as part of the 19th-century modernizing process, and how their labor--paid and unpaid--has restructured the American economy. Our goal is to show the full diversity of women's history without portraying it as a seamless path from corset and kitchen to boardroom and the halls of Congress.

I support the idea of a museum that would tell the multiplicity of women's stories; however, given the academic concerns from women's historians, if there is to be a commission, and hearings, I hope that there will be voices who represent those of us who have been doubly written out of history--as women and as people of color. Given the open racial hostilities vocalized by elected officials and a right-wing legislative agenda attempting to turn back time on civil rights and women's rights, I don't see that as a possibility in the short term. If there were a way to get meddling politician's fingers out of the soup of programmatic concerns, and an independent and representative advisory board could provide oversight, I could get behind the campaign. For now, I'm pretty leery.

Howard Zinn opens his People's History of the United States with Native Americans and Columbus, and includes women's roles and history in that narrative. In Chapter 6: The Intimately Oppressed, he writes of women's history, and again includes Native American women:

It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status. In this invisibility they were something like black slaves (and thus slave women faced a double oppression). The biological uniqueness of women, like skin color and facial characteristics for Negroes, became a basis for treating them as inferiors. True, with women, there was something more practically important in their biology than skin color-their position as childbearers-but this was not enough to account for the general push backward for all of them in society, even those who did not bear children, or those too young or too old for that. It seems that their physical characteristics became a convenience for men, who could use, exploit, and cherish someone who was at the same time servant, sex mate, companion, and bearer-teacher-warden of his children.

Societies based on private property and competition, in which monogamous families became practical units for work and socialization, found it especially useful to establish this special status of women, something akin to a house slave in the matter of intimacy and oppression, and yet requiring, because of that intimacy, and long-term connection with children, a special patronization, which on occasion, especially in the face of a show of strength, could slip over into treatment as an equal. An oppression so private would turn out hard to uproot.

Earlier societies-in America and elsewhere-in which property was held in common and families were extensive and complicated, with aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers all living together, seemed to treat women more as equals than did the white societies that later overran them, bringing "civilization" and private property. In the Zuni tribes of the Southwest, for instance, extended families- large clans-were based on the woman, whose husband came to live with her family. It was assumed that women owned the houses, and the fields belonged to the clans, and the women had equal rights to what was produced. A woman was more secure, because she was with her own family, and she could divorce the man when she wanted to, keeping their property. Women in the Plains Indian tribes of the Midwest did not have farming duties but had a very important place in the tribe as healers, herbalists, and sometimes holy people who gave advice. When bands lost their male leaders, women would become chieftains. Women learned to shoot small bows, and they carried knives, because among the Sioux a woman was supposed to be able to defend herself against attack.

I have always supported Zinn's approach to teaching history, and he is certainly not the only historian with this perspective. When, and if, the dust settles around these controversies over the establishment of the museum, and if the project comes to fruition, I have but one hope: that somehow the stories and history of all women, without whom this nation could not have survived and grown, are told and that the intersections between "race", ethnicity, class, and gender issues are clearly exhibited.

click here
Women, Images and Realities:
A Multicultural Anthology
The politics of the battle around the museum's establishment have obfuscated the need for all of us, male and female, to learn, not mythologies, but realities. Hence the use of that word in the title of a textbook developed over the years in the department where I currently teach, which I'd like to offer as one example.

From the description of Women: Images & Realities, A Multicultural Anthology, edited by Suzanne Kelly, Gowri Parameswaran, and Nancy Schniedewind:

A multicultural anthology, the text presents a multidisciplinary collection of academic essays and analyses, personal narratives, and fiction and poetry about women's lives. The readings illustrate the variety of women's experiences, primarily in the United States, considering both commonalities and differences among women and appreciating women's diverse approaches to living and fostering change.
If you examinethe Table of Contents, you will see content that reflects multiple feminisms. We need more women's studies, and that curricula must be diverse, with many voices in the text--and not just academic writing, but poems and song lyrics and narratives. Even if a museum is established, that will not change what our young people learn in school.

The cosmetic approach of exceptionalism that has so often been how the history of the male founders has been propagated must be avoided at all costs. If that does not happen, it will be a mausoleum and not a museum, in my eyes, but a tomb for the hopes and dreams and lives of over half of the population.

I want to walk through the doors into the world of Native American women, and follow the waves of women as they enter this land, by choice or by force. Women were part of the struggle to resist, as well as the perpetuation of harm, to others and themselves. Women were abolitionists and slaveholders. Women were victims of Indian boarding schools, as well as teacher/jailers.

More than a museum, we need to take stronger actions about what young people are being taught in our schools. All of the his-stories and her-stories that have gone far too long locked away in the historical dustbin need to become standard parts of a well-integrated curricula. That won't happen until we beat back the privatization of public education, defeat de facto segregation in our schools, and quash the forces who deny science and fact-based scholarship.

What our children learn is in our hands. We have to fight for it. And vote for it.


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