It’s a mixed bag, but the work of righting the record matters.
This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.
Everyone, I think we did it. We may have made it through Women’s History Month (WHM) / International Women’s Day with a minimum of cringe. It took some time, but we have collectively shamed the pink-washing, girl-powering, girl-bossing while still maintaining a gender pay-gap contingent of capitalism to the point they’ve kept the condescension to a minimum.
Not so much the case in politics, where the GOP decided to unironically commemorate the first Women’s History Month in my lifetime when women have fewer rights than they did last go-round, thanks to Republican machinations. Also, transphobes and TERFS responded to ESPN’s story on transgender swimmer Lia Thomas by pretending to care about women’s sports.
Side note: Their uproar assumes that trans women have a biological advantage over cisgender women. Sports are not sex-segregated to because cisgender women can’t compete with cisgender men; it’s because mediocre cisgender men cannot cope with losing to women.
Anyway, patronizing advertising campaigns and hypocritical politics aside, most of this year’s Women’s History Month content has been pretty great. One of the longstanding criticisms has been the focus on white women, but the Wisconsin Historical Society and Madison Public Library’s WHM pages are refreshingly intersectional, especially this list of “12 Iconic Wisconsin Women.” Madison has had events throughout the month to recognize and honor women’s contributions in local arts, activism, and business.
But it’s not enough. The reason we need a separate month to recognize the contributions of women is because our role is diminished or excluded from the storytelling of this country the other 11. Women are treated as a separate entity to be squeezed into the footnotes. We are seen as driftwood that once in a while gets caught up in the flow of events, instead of agents of change.
European historian Nancy Goldstone wrote in a 2018 commentary for Time about how the ultimate goal is for society to recognize that women’s history is just history.
“But by allowing women to be shunted off to the side in this way—for no matter how impressive the academic department, or how large the museum, or how many previously unknown females are highlighted in the month of March, that is what we are doing—we ensure that women remain a subset of history rather than integral components of recognized major events,” Goldstone wrote.
Goldstone wrote about how European historians preferred to perpetuate a story about Joan of Arc being led by angels to help Charles VII instead of acknowledging it was his mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, queen of Sicily, “one of the most competent and effective politicians in world history,” who recruited her, then organized and financed her army. Goldstone recalled a male interviewer who said that Queen Catherine de’ Medici is best known for bringing “fine cuisine to France,” even though she was also responsible for the slaughter of thousands of French Protestants, known as the Huguenots. Perpetuating genocide is not inspiring like the Joan of Arc story; the point isn’t that women have always been heroes, but that they have always shaped our world. “The future is female,” as they say, but so was the past.
Women are the reason the U.S. implemented child labor laws, prohibition, and its repeal. Rosa Parks didn’t stay seated because she was tired; she was a longtime activist and organizer who was instrumental in the Montgomery bus boycott. I knew the name Cesar Chavez years before I’d even heard of Dolores Huerta, even though she co-founded the National Farm Workers’ Association with Chavez. I could go on.
The marginalization of histories, an issue that impacts all marginalized groups, is slow to change, because so many are invested in the story that marginalization accommodates. How can you rectify slavery and anti-Black racism with the idea that the United States is the greatest country in the world? You minimize its role in history. Then the 1619 Project shows how slavery and anti-Black racism have been foundational in the country’s banking, agriculture, diet, labor, healthcare, etc., and the people invested in that marginalization lose their damn minds.
There’s a similar investment in the marginalization of women’s role in history. As catchy as “It’s A Man’s World” by James Brown is, I can’t get past the message of the lyrics, which portray men as the architects of the world and women merely as decoration. The reality is that some of us were relegated to the unseen work of setting the foundation, installing plumbing, and running the electrical systems while others got to take credit for the whole house. But without everyone else’s labor, that house would have been nothing more than a shack.