Women Without History

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I opened my daughter's history book the other day, and it hit me all over again.

We may be in the 21st century, but our history is still the history of men. Men who were kings, who invented machines, conquered weaker nations, compelled religious conversions, made scientific discoveries, sailed to foreign lands, and slaughtered each other with increasing efficiency as the centuries rolled by. For every Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and Dolly Madison, there's a thousand famous men, like Caesar Augustus, Marco Polo, Eli Whitney, Karl Marx, John Locke, Mahatma Gandhi, or Richard Nixon. Honestly, you could be forgiven for thinking that women did absolutely nothing of consequence until 1920, when women won the vote, insisted on equal rights in the 1960's, and then nothing again, until Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State. Okay, I'm exaggerating. But not much.

Taking book from shelf, Image Credit: Shutterstock

It rather reminds me of the way an invading force subdues a native population. Outlaw the mother tongue, impose the culture and law of the invader, teach only the history of the oppressor, and devalue any source of pride or identity of those you wish to control. If everyone buys in to the idea that women haven't done much of historical significance, and were not a part of the major advances or achievements of society, they are less likely to muster any significant opposition to the actions of men.  It's genius really - half the population neutralized in one fell swoop. Probably has something to do with that tendency women have to hang back, not speak up, settle for less, and let others take the credit, that Sheryl Sandberg has written her book, Lean In, about.

I remember a couple of years ago, I commented to another parent that the list of 100 scientists from which our children were allowed to choose their subject for a report contained only the names of men.   He replied that, if a woman had, say, figured out the solar system, or stumbled across the theory of relativity, or done anything important, of course we would have heard about it. I furrowed my brow but kept silent. Wasn't it obvious that the absence of women's names in history arises from the customs and prejudices of the time in which that history was recorded, not from the failure of women to play a pivotal role?  I realized that not everyone shared that opinion.

So, in this one month of the year we have to ponder women's history, I offer a few relevant facts about women in the United States. We may mourn that so much of our story was never recorded, and therefore can never be discovered or reconstructed.  But we can know our present.  We women are worthy of study, we are engaged at all levels of human experience, and in fact have a unique perspective because of our gender. We can start here, now, and remember these things.*

  • Women outnumber men in the US, about 158 million to 153 million.
  • 58% of women 16 and over are employed.
  • There are over 204,000 women in the US military, about 20% of all those who serve.
  • Women who work full-time, year round, have median annual earnings of about $37,000, while the figure for full-time, year round working men is over $48,000.
  • Women are more likely to earn high school diplomas, undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees than men.
  • More women are registered to vote, and actually vote, than men.
  • 80% of women become mothers, and they have an average of 2 children.
  • There are 7.8 million women owned businesses, employing around 7.5 million people, and generating about id="mce_marker".2 trillion in revenue annually.
  • Women are twice as likely as men to live in poverty in old age.

And one more fact - Maria Mitchell was the first female American astronomer, and she discovered a comet in 1847.  She subsequently discovered that she was being paid less than male profesors of astronomy at Vassar College where she worked.  In a fine example of leaning in, she insisted on a raise, and got it.

'Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

*Source: US Census Bureau, Facts for Features, March 2013 Women's History Month