Hannah Withers

Rewriting History to Include Herstory

History, as the old saying goes, is written by the victors; but in 2016, I feel its time we rewrite it to fairly represent both genders.

 

History has forgotten about women. The historical narratives we learn at school, from books and religious texts, is just that: history—told from his perspective, in his voice. The word history itself derives from the Greek “histor,” meaning “wise man.”

Powerful white men have typically written these one-sided historical narratives about other powerful white men. Their stories were recorded as fact and passed from generation to generation. They describe strong male leaders and bloody battles, but skim over the stories, contributions, and courage of trailblazing women. It’s not that women have never achieved anything of note or have never put pen to paper. They have, many times over. But women’s historical achievements are often diminished or credited to men. And work by female historians has been ignored by publishers or left to gather dust on library shelves, deemed too “emotional” or “superficial,” while male writers’ work has been exalted.

A recent study of 614 popular history books published by 80 different houses in 2015 for example found 76% were written by men and that out of the historical biographies 72% were written about men. And in the UK last year, only four female writers appeared in the list of top 50 bestselling history titles.

Greater value has always been placed on men’s voices in society more broadly, not just in history books. They are bestowed with more authority, perceived as the breadwinners, the leaders, the well-educated, the politically and economically engaged. And, to this day, women are still perceived as the homemakers and child-rearers, rather than as people with worthwhile stories to tell and history to record.

We need to celebrate the achievements of trailblazing women. … So we can remember that barriers have been broken before and will be again. So we can remember that despite the setbacks and the disappointments, herstory is ultimately the story of triumph over adversity.

This preferencing only serves to perpetuate the cycle of gender inequality and rigid gender stereotyping. Publishers choose not to publish as many texts by female authors because they “won’t sell” as well as a man’s work will, but the disproportionate amount of published texts by men on the market has all but simply reinforced the societal perception that men know more than women on historical subjects.

Our conceptualization of history is therefore skewed. Cultural narratives celebrating the achievements of ordinary and extraordinary men have become the norm. They have shaped our worldview, our recollection of events, and how we relate to one another. The blind acceptance of these narratives as the only objective truth is extremely dangerous. It fuels apathy and our ongoing acceptance of disparity.

Stories affirm the act of being, of living, through an exploration of the human soul, our everyday lives and our values. They help us make sense of the world and the universe, to cope with chaos, confusion, illness, and suffering, and to explore and express pain and sadness. But how can we make sense of the wholeness of the human condition if an integral component of the story, and 50 percent of the global population, are systematically left out of the narrative?

Celebrating herstory isn’t saying that one voice is more important than the other, but simply a way of acknowledging that there is more than one truth and that women’s perspectives matter. Acknowledging herstory helps us create more just and equal societies through a more comprehensive understanding of different points of view.

This preferencing only serves to perpetuate the cycle of gender inequality and rigid gender stereotyping. … The market has all but simply reinforced the societal perception that men know more than women on historical subjects.

Women are constantly undervalued and underestimated. We don’t yet have parity on the sports field, in parliament, or on corporate boards. And in the wake of the U.S. electing a man who thinks a woman’s body is his for the taking, we need to celebrate the achievements of trailblazing women, celebrate herstory. Now, more than ever. So we can remember that barriers have been broken before and will be again. So we can remember that despite the setbacks and the disappointments, herstory is ultimately the story of triumph over adversity.

The men out there—they need herstory too. Just as much as women do, probably even more so. All of us need to challenge our worldviews and recognize the true value of difference, so we can work towards gender parity and a gender-equal world in our lifetime.

 

 

Hannah Withers

Hannah Withers is a freelance writer and academic research assistant with Monash and Swinburne Universities, Melbourne, Australia. She holds a Master of Human Rights from the University of Sydney, and a Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Arts (International Studies) from the University of NSW.

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