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Gendering Historical Memory

Female threshing crew, Minnesota, late 19th century

It is highly unfortunate that in the public mind, history is actually quite gendered. Popular history–Real History for a lot of people–is biographies of men and stories of war. The History Channel long has created this vision, but so does PBS and lots of other outlets. This inherently diminishes histories of other people as “not real” or “revisionist” or just plain irrelevant. But this focus on military and politics actually has tremendously negative consequences in terms of the stories we remember, whose stories get bought and sold, and how we interpret and think about history on a daily basis. Erin Bartram has a really good essay on this in the context of Mother’s Day.

This set of ideas is wrong in so many ways, of course. Even if history were only war and a narrowly-defined view politics, there’s nothing to say that a mother might not be interested in a book on a topic in those areas. There’s nothing to say your father would, other than cultural pressures and Amazon’s recommendation list. Historians write the history of everything, including many of the ideas, objects, and experiences that are central to women’s lives, and those histories should always be on our radar as gift possibilities whenever we feel we must succumb to the social pressure of honoring our loved ones with material objects.

But it’s not that simple. “History” as an object of cultural consumption, as a section label at Barnes & Noble, as a thing about which one can be a buff, is about more than just history—it’s about ideas of importance. Sure, I might get my mother a book about adoption, or the history of gynecology, or fabric—but does that really count as “History” to the history buffs? If they don’t recognize it as “History,” will she?

One of the main ways women engage with the past—reading historical fiction—doesn’t seem to count either, even when it’s about counts. That’s not because historical fiction is inherently bad, but add romance, you see, and it’s not really the same. It doesn’t matter how much research the author may have put in—and they’ve often put in a whole lot—or how much they’ve decided to prioritize thrills over historical content, our culture does not think reading Jean Plaidy is the same as reading Bernard Cornwell. This perspective has started to change, probably because historians of women have helped reshape our ideas of the past and what counts as important, but I don’t think women who read a lot of historical fiction consider themselves “history buffs” in the same way Patrick O’Brian fans do. When it comes down to it, it’s not just that the history of women things is less important, it’s that in a patriarchal system, women engaging in things lowers their cultural value.

Well, you might ask, does your mother read history? Do you get her history books for Mother’s Day? Is she interested in history?

Probably not, by conventional metrics. She has always read historical fiction—much of it romantic—as did her own mother, but she is not really interested in Team of Rivals. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that my interest in history was cultivated by conversations with my mother. Beyond that, I realize she was a model of historical thinking, after a fashion, without either of us realizing it. It’s just that none of it looked like the things that my culture called history.

It is very much worth noting that one of the way sexism gets replicated in our society is dudes geeking out about military maneuvers and not paying any attention to what half the people in our history have ever done.

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