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The Deep Black Hole of Women’s History

| September 19, 2011

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On Tuesday (8 PM, EST), "History Detectives" on PBS  will feature a "Votes for Women" segment in which author Louise Bernikow helps the crew unearth the origins of an early 20th century purple and gold banner. Her experience provoked the following thoughts about women's history, the media and where we are now.

Picture this: New York harbor, October, 1886. Dignitaries, including President Grover Cleveland, elbow each other on the Bedloe’s Island platform, huge crowds crane their necks toward a tall draped Statue of Liberty about to be revealed. In the water, flag-flying steamers, tugboats, rowboats.  Look closely and you see a barge carrying some well dressed white ladies holding signs: “American Women Have No Liberty. Give us the vote.”

Lillie Devereux Blake and her companions set the stage for an even more daring event three decades later. In December, 1916, women piloting small bi-planes and dropping “Votes for Women” leaflets hovered over President Woodrow Wilson’s yacht as he sailed down the Hudson River to preside over the electrical floodlighting of the statue.

Now that’s American history. I’d love to see these troublemakers in textbooks and documentaries, but I don’t think it likely. Too provocative.

Pundits and politicians lament the ignorance of our young about their own country’s history and pass educational standards to address it, but I fear they are doomed if they don’t learn more about women and repair their thinking on the subject.

Every March, I get my hopes up. March is Women’s History Month, with apparently mandatory programming. Some TV stations know they must do “something about women,” but they don’t appear to know what “history” means. I’m not being the fuss-budget who insists we call it “herstory,” because I firmly believe that women’s history is American history. Still, Women’s History Month means you tell audiences something about female people and the past. Instead, year after year, I see individual, contemporary “outstanding women” profiled in March. Often they are corporate leaders. Duty fulfilled.

Not so fast.

We are, I suppose, a nation of individualists. Our reigning myth is the Lone Ranger—who was not, I remind you, “lone” because all his feats were accomplished with the help of Tonto, who doesn’t count because he was not a white man. When it comes to women, the telling of history in popular media follows the same pattern, focusing on “leaders” or “outstanding women,” always  “lone.” Even Ken Burn’s "Not For Ourselves Alone," perhaps the most elaborate television telling of an aspect of women’s history in our time, stinted on showing the movement around Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—the others who inspired them, challenged them or thwarted them, carried their ideas forward, passed it on. Every woman whose name has made it into our consciousness has had others, who go unmentioned, with her.

Thankfully, the women we do see from the past are no longer just the white women. Some people actually know that Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972 or that Rosa Parks was part of a cadre of activists, including a large number of black women, who had been trying for some time to challenge segregation on public transportation. But those stories, you know, belong in February, which is Black History Month. If Harriet Tubman showed up at suffrage meetings, which she did, where, in this divided telling of America’s past, does that story go?

So I am caught in a historical nightmare in which it’s 1970 and many people, activists, writers, academics, students, are asking loudly, “Where are the women?” Our school textbooks, college curricula and public entertainment had so few. Because we asked the question, and were doing the work to answer it, things changed. A better, more balanced view of the country’s present and its past began to emerge, one with women, all kinds of women, in it. And now it’s faded again.

We are left with an obligatory nod to women’s history—events in March, the odd segment on a cable show, the single female commentator in history programming. Media people consider they have “done women” when they’ve put 30 minutes on the air. All women, only women, any women, merely women—that’s the attitude that came through a few months ago when the New York Times Book Review ran a half-page photograph of a delegation holding “Peace” signs arriving at a 1916 international women’s conference to illustrate a book about opposition to World War One. “Women” was how the caption writer identified Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, Mary Heaton Vorse and several others. It reminded me of the difficulty of finding and writing women’s history at all when, researching the suffrage movement, I uncovered photographs in newspaper archives captioned “suffs leaving prison” or “suffs on a rooftop.”

Others may call this carelessness, but I call it disdain.

The suffrage movement was not a bunch of old fashioned old ladies reeking of camphor talking about an irrelevancy called The Vote. We have not exhausted the possibilities of this and all the other rich stories in our history and I, for one, hope we will not let them fade.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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