Women’s History Month: Or, Women’s Non-History

As Henry A. Giroux observed in his 1994 book, Disturbing Pleasures, the determination of what is to be removed from the sphere of exchange and declared significant and permanent is linked to power relations in society. He proposed that cultural representations are selected in such a way as “to sustain certain myths and ideologies. . . .” Eliminating certain voices from dominant narratives helps reinforce the interests of those whose hegemonic representations are advanced.

To that end we find, even in 2015, that women are still largely absent from dominant narratives.

For example, a 2015 survey commissioned by the National Women’s History Museum of more than 1,000 Americans revealed that:

– more Americans feel more knowledgeable about sports and celebrity gossip than women’s history.
– Less than 1 percent of Americans know how many women currently serve in Congress or how many women are currently a CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
– Only a third of millennials believe they are knowledgeable about women’s history, and just 10 percent of adults over age 55 feel the same way.”

Why? One study of American high-school history textbooks found that “in one that contains 819 pages, the text allotted to references to women added up to less than one page. A closer look at another publisher’s offering showed that in more than 1,000 pages, there were four illustrations of men for every one of women and that less than three percent of the text was about women.”

This trend continues outside of formal education. Slate Magazine looked at author gender and subject matter among history books published for general readers in 2015. They reported:

We examined a set of 614 works of popular history from 80 houses, which either published books we defined as trade history or landed books we defined as trade history on the New York Times Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction best-seller list in 2015. We found that 75.8 percent of the total titles had male authors. Interestingly, the effect was slightly less pronounced among titles that made the New York Times best-seller list—but only slightly (70.4 percent of those authors were male). University press and trade imprints had roughly the same proportion of male to female authors.”

Furthermore:

Biographies represented 21 percent of the total number of books published. Their subjects were 71.7 percent male, with the list dominated by big names like Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill, and Napoleon Bonaparte. While some of the biographies of men were written by women (13 percent), female authors were far more likely than male writers to write biographies about women. Sixty-nine percent of female biography authors wrote about female subjects, and there was a huge gap between this number and the 6 percent of male biography authors who wrote about women. Clearly, there is some relationship between the gender of authors of biographies and the gender of their subjects.”

Lara Heimert, the publisher of Basic Books, stated that in history publishing, schedules are “organized around gift-giving seasons—Christmas and ‘dads and grads’ (Fathers’ Day and graduation)—which is to say that we assume many of our big history books are bought as gifts, and specifically as gifts for men.” 

An article on bustle.com (an e-magazine totally by women) noted that many histories are written by women, but:

It isn’t that women aren’t writing history books, then; it’s that people don’t seem to buy them as much as they do men’s titles. It’s possible that, because of our silly, yet entrenched, cultural belief that history is a man’s subject, readers overlook history books written by women.”

As James Young, in his 1994 book on Holocaust memorials The Texture of Memory, observed: The motives of history are never pure.” History books say more about the people who write them and the societies that support them than actual events. Commemorative narrative, especially having the imprimatur of “history” helps fashion the landscape of “accepted truth.”

It appears that the moment of deconstructing practices of memorialization may have passed. The ubiquity of the internet and the tendency of users to gravitate toward views with which they already agree and that make them feel comfortable does not help the need for exposure to multiple points of view.

What, then, can be done? An awareness of how hegemonic narratives are politically-informed constructions will help. One can only hope that the continued drumbeat of groups affected by the style and content of historical representation will push these issues onto social and political agendas.

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