By Naomi Panovka, Canada.
Ancient history has been one of the most memorable courses I have taken throughout high school, as I’ve had the opportunity to learn about intriguing time periods such as the middle ages, the reformation, and the religious wars. However, as I sat in class learning about the Hongwu Emperor, Mehmed the Conqueror, Cosimo De Medici, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli, I came to a sad realization; We had yet to study a women. I began to postulate the reasoning behind the lack of female representation in my history textbook. Did women contribute less to history? Did sexism prevent females from accessing positions of power? Did male historians purposefully undermine the contributions of women? Upon further investigation, I discovered the unfortunate truth. The contributions of women throughout history were instrumental in shaping human civilians. Far too often, their innovations and contributions were ignored, demonized, or credited to men.
The ignorance of women’s contributions to history began thousands of years ago, and continues today. Pharaoh Hatshepsut was one of the most successful Egyption leaders, as she established vital trade routes, initiated building projects, and outwardly expanded the Egyption empire. However, memory of the prosperity she brought Europe was nearly erased by her own stepson, who attempted to remove statues and records of the great Hatshepsut. Furthermore, women who are remembered are often unfairly vilified. For example, Cleopatra was portrayed as a harlot who used her sexuality to control powerful men in her life, such as Julius Caesar. In reality, she was a highly intelligent women and astute political figure. Sexualising Cleopatra was a way of undermining other elements of her identity.
In addition to the erasure of prominent female political figures from history, the innovations of women have often been accredited to men. For instance, Barbara McClintock revolutionized genetics in 1948, as she discovered that certain pairs of chromosomes could swap genes. She was met with laughter from male geneticists, who claimed that she had done the math incorrectly. In 1960, Ms. McClintock read an article by male geneticists who had reached the same scientific conclusion. She was only accredited for her work in 1983, decades after Barbara’s innovation was introduced to the scientific community. Furthermore, American artist Margaret Keane is now known as the esteemed creator of the Big Eye paintings, which were incredibly popular throughout the 1960’s. However, for years, the public was under the false impression that the creator of the Big Eye paintings was Margaret’s husband, Walter Keane. Walter told Barbara that the paintings would become more popular if he took credit. Subsequently, he convinced her to continue with the lie, even threatening her life. Evidently, the patriarchy and historical record has erased the history of women in a variety of ways, ranging from ignoring their contributions, distorting their character, and crediting their excellence to men.
Unfortunately, the absence of women within our history textbooks has perversely impacted how women are treated today. For one, the notion that men are inherently more powerful, competent, and influential has been perpetuated. Since society has become accustomed to associating positions of power with manliness, it seems far more “unnatural” when a woman attempts to access power. In a survey commissioned for Women’s History Month in March 2016, just under half of the UK population – 40% – believed that women did not have as much of an impact on history as men. Additionally, young girls have fewer historical role models to relate to. For a young women who wants to major in STEM, the visibility of a scientist such as Barbara McClintock can help provide her with the confidence and motivation to pursue that course. However, when the majority of historically revered scientists are men, this can be incredibly discouraging. Finally, lacking historical knowledge about prominent women has decreased our understanding of female history. We are often unaware of the sexist barriers which women had to navigate, since their stories and lives have been ignored. Ultimately, history informs our present day understanding of society. The historical erasure of women is an injustice in its disregard for the women who have shaped our society, and women today who are denied access to empowering narratives about the fantastic females who lived before us.
Authors explore the development and application of various feminist theories on our modern society.