Silent Half: Resuscitating Women's Muted History

If you’re a woman, it’s likely that at some point in time, you went out of your way to try and find more pieces of your history. I don’t mean those cornerstone stories- of Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Joan of Arc, Soujourner Truth- incredible as each of those women were. No, I mean, at some point as a woman, you try to find yourself resolutely and substantially in the pages of history.

You search for volumes on women, substantial details of their lives, notes and records and … instead you’re faced with missing lines, torn fragments, bits of faded remembrances, and vague shadows where once stood an epic Dalila or Mary Magdalene. There is an even more extreme feeling of erasure and subverted evidence if you are a woman of color.

Women’s history should enchant us like an exquisite spider web- complicated and far-reaching, dewed and sunlit; one you can’t take your eyes off of of. Instead, it’s a gossamer, floating in and out of view.

 cred:  creative commons: washoe women working

cred: creative commons: washoe women working

Or is it?

As a woman, you wonder to yourself, “What else did women do and invent and plan and execute that a man got credit for, or was otherwise forgotten?” The answer is, without a doubt, a ton. Quietly directing things around the hearth, actively making decisions with men, striking out on impossible journeys, years spent tinkering with new inventions, fighting for the sick and forgotten- women have been shaping history as much as men since the dawn of time.

A simple internet search for women in any particular field will yield plenty of results. There is a remarkable breadth of knowledge and herstory available. In science, art, healthcare, convenience and comfort, and spiritual awakening, women have contributed a breathtaking array of imaginative innovations; we’ve orchestrated paradigm shifts.  

This very article was inspired by a current project Bombilore is working on- a new website for an incredible datatbase of peacemaking women, collected over 30 years by a true ally, Jim Gould, a retired history professor (he is 92!). We can’t wait to share that with you, and there are some great resources at the end of this article for you to explore as well.

But first, all this begs the question we must ask ourselves: If we have all this history, and we have had it for at least half a century, where in the hell has it been in our schools, our universirties, our living rooms and our tv screens?

Knowing there is a wealth of information, for however much is missing, demands the question: Is it really that women’s history is missing or is it that it has been silenced?

Yes, that is a rhetorical question, because we all know the answer.

The problem is not that we have lost women’s history, it's that the patriarchal world-view is so pervasive and so nuanced that we haven’t really, as a culture, questioned the story itself that we tell.

And the story we tell is thus: “For a long time, women really were oppressed, but also you must understand that their role was predominantly in the home, and so they just didn’t really play much of a role outside that. There just isn’t much history that survived. I know it’s a bit sad, it’s unfortunate, but things are changing and women can really be anything they want now, and here are a few great women you can read about. In fact- here’s a whole month to celebrate women’s contributions. Ok, let’s turn to page 6, Thomas Jefferson….”

Sound familiar? While the admission that women have been oppressed for milenea is an important cultural agreement to reach, to focus solely on our oppression is actually a vehicle for our continued oppression. Folded neatly into this newer, supposedly modern narrative are all the pillars of our unprecedented silencing.  

It is insulting to suggest that although we have an incomplete, underrepresented history, we can now be whatever we want. Studies have long-proved that when we see people like us represented in various fields or positions, we are infinitely more able to see ourselves doing it (see below, Miss Representation). Teach women that all they have been is oppressed or caretakers of men, children, and homes, and women by and large continue to be oppressed and caretakers of men, children, and homes.

It's insulting to set aside one month a year to honor exactly one half of the world’s population.

It’s a cop-out from the real work of re-writing our history books to fully include women. To do that, we have to change our whole approach to teaching history.  One study noted that part of the problem is that “textbooks placed an emphasis on political, diplomatic and military history instead of social history and, as a result, women’s achievements in the private sphere were left out.”

It's true that women were in the home by and large. It’s also true that the reality of that life, the heritage, the development of the home as we know it, the social fabric of life in any given era- it deserves more than a few scant mentions. It’s fully half or more of the story. We learn about, and therefore more deeply value, what men cared about, thought about, and dealt with.

We’re taught the brutal details of war. We’re told about legs being amputated and castles stormed. Of kings dethroned and territories conquored. But what of the territory of the human body? What HERstories are told of childbirth in the home? Of midwives and nursing and the loss of children? Of collecting and preparing and preserving food? Of binding wounds, of familial rituals? What histories are truly told in as much depth about arranged marriage and the horrors of being sold as a woman? We are taught about the horrors of slavery, but we are not taught about the horrors of wifedom.

Finally, it’s insulting that the women who do stand as the gatekeepers to women’s history fall resolutely into one of three categories: pious do-gooder, slutty provocateur, and ruthless ruler.

Surely, in the sands of time, all characters become a little 2 dimensional. But for women, we continue to have to try very hard, compromise, and search for more nuanced and properly complex roles than these three. What’s more, there has been a creepily curated selection of historical women.

Sure, we’ve got a few brave, undeniable heroines. But consider the American Revolution. Do you know who Clara Barton is? Yes! You do; she sewed the first American flag. Cool, good for her. But have you heard of Deborah Sampson? If so, good on you, but I am willing to bet that like myself many of you haven’t. She was a committed patriot and freedom fighter who disguised herself as a man for years in order to serve in combat.  She led raids, captured British soldiers, dug trenches, and extracted a bullet out of her own thigh to avoid being detected as woman. She was the only woman from the war to receive a military pension.

Make no mistake- leaving truly powerful female figures resolutely out of the American textbook is no mistake.

The current story around why we don’t teach an evolved and progressive history of women is unacceptable, and as women (and men!), we are taking note. It's painful and damaging to be unable to find your gender, by and large, in the common historical vernacular, or in a diversity of consequential roles. It is unacceptable, likewise, to downplay the massive efforts and contributions that "being largely relegated to the home" entails, then and now!

No longer are we going to buy the cheap knock-off story of a lost HERstory. Instead, we are going to shine light on the actual problem: a story that continually omits, down-plays, and subjugates women’s history.

We are no longer going to accept the real problem: entrenched sexism- not loss of documentation.

While it is true that vast documentation of women’s lives have been lost, burned, forgotten or never written down in the first place, there is much that can be found. Much that has been found. In honor of Women’s (one) History Month, here’s some amazing collections and bios and other links to explore. Please enjoy finding yourself in hertory...

I encourage each of us to watch with a close eye what we read and see and hear, even across some of these sites. For example, Sybil Ludington was not “the female Paul Revere,” she was a freedom night rider, a peer of Paul Revere.

A (Non-Exhaustive) Journey Into Your HERstory (For Women and Men)

Women In Peace

National Women’s History Museum / Deborah Sampson

Some Remarkable Native American Women

Remarkable Women of Color

91 Women Scientists

More on the Subject of Women’s Silenced/Subjugated History:

Miss Representation: How the lack of representation/narrow representation in media affects women and girls (a must watch!!)

Voices Not Heard, Joyce A. Delaney: A bit outdated, but an important work

Nicholas Ferroni: A true (male) ally, worth following if you’re in education or interested in this topic

Women Underrepresented in History : A good article with links to more studies

Amanda Verdery Young is Bombilore's founder and Editor in Chief. She helps conscious businesses bring their missions to life, online and beyond, through development, content marketing and web design.  She lives to explore the far reaches of heart, land, and creativity alongside two wild Aries companions- her husband and son- in Portland, Oregon.


header photo: creative commons, women welders, c. 1943