Thursday, 8 March 2018

For International Women's Day

A desk calendar reading "8 MARCH"
It's International Women's Day, so let's talk about women.
Let's talk about the fact that mainstream history has a tendency to treat women's contributions in one of two ways. Generally speaking, it's either minimised, or mythologised.
Boudica led a revolt of several native tribes against the Romans in Britain. It was a big thing in its day, and Camulodunum (among others) certainly noticed, but in the grand scheme of things it was another provincial rebellion that was put down by the Roman Empire. The long-term strategy against such events was romanisation, which continued and succeeded across southern Britannia, and to variable extents as you went north.
Rosalind Franklin barely escaped her contribution being ignored, partly by virtue of living recently enough. Lise Meitner did critical work leading to nuclear fission, but it was her collaborator Otto Hahn who got most of the credit – and the Nobel prize. Ada Lovelace, on the other hand, certainly did groundbreaking work on computing, before there were any physical devices to which the work could be applied, but modern appreciation of this work often leads those who do not understand it to dramatically overstate its importance and impact.
Florence Nightingale is the mother of modern nursing, and her work was certainly groundbreaking. It did not, however, exist in a vacuum, and it depended on other women. She was a leader, an outrider, but she became a figurehead around which mythology could develop, even while she was alive.
Wu Zetian is held up as an exceptional figure of female rulership in China, being empress consort, dowager empress, and empress regnant (in that order), with a range of stories told – scandalous and triumphal – to make her more exceptional. It seems hardly necessary to mythologise the first clearly successful queen regnant of England, Elizabeth I, but that did not stop people from doing so while she was ruling – and more so, if less simperingly, after her death. In both polities, and many – likely all – others, there have been politically important women who are either completely forgotten, or their impact minimised until one comes to study them particularly. Eleanor of Aquitaine is celebrated, with minimal mythologisation, by those who have chosen to learn about her and her impact, but for most even in Britain she is a name that people recognise but struggle to provide any information about. Women have been the power behind the throne, they have been key diplomats, they have been administrators, they have even been (usually unofficial) key military advisors.
I shan't even get started on Joan of Arc, or this post would end up far, far too long.
By emphasising and mythologising the impact of a select few women, largely those whose impact was too significant to be ignored, we create the impression that the only women who had influence and impact were women of such exceptional quality that their sex could be forgotten. Attributing supernatural or superhuman occurrences to them makes them seem more exceptional than they were, and thus normalises the exclusion of other women from history.
If we are to truly celebrate, not to mention understand the impact of women, both in history and today, we must do our best to see the truth, however dimly, and celebrate women without making impossible idols of them. We must do what we can to elevate the forgotten women of history, to understand the lives of ordinary women, and to accept and mourn the fact that much of what women contributed is lost forever, unless we should develop the ability to view the past through some sort of miraculous technology.
For Quakers, we should not fail to do this with our own history. We can be so self-congratulatory about our inclusion of women as ministers from our earliest days, we forget that women were excluded from many business meetings for quite some time. We forget that even the estimable Fox had women set up special meetings for doing work that was seen as appropriate for women, while men got on with the other business. We celebrate Margaret Fell and Mary Fisher, and forget a nameless multitude of early travelling ministers who were never counted among the valiant sixty – many of them women. Indeed, even if we consider the valiant sixty, the names most remembered tend to be the men. For all our progressiveness, even at the time, we were not angels. We should not be satisfied that we did better than most communities at the time, in recognising and remembering women; we should do what we can to remedy the situation before time and distance makes it impossible.
So, for International Women's Day, let us celebrate women in our lives, in the world, and in history, but let us also commit to working to do so in a way that does not fall prey to exceptionalism. Let us not only celebrate the women who did so much or did the spectacular, but remember that women have been part of society, influencing and driving forward even when patriarchal norms forced them to do so in ways that were unseen and unacknowledged.
And let that hidden history remind us that we still have far to go, and that the same is true today. It might be less so, as it cannot be denied that the 20th century saw progress in the matter of equality between the genders. But let us not mistake progress for success.
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