Every year, we celebrate the many accomplishments made by women in March during Women’s History Month. That’s not to say we can’t keep the same energy year-round, but March provides a nice, timely way to remember the role women had (and continue to have) in shaping society and how oftentimes, throughout history, their many achievements can be forgotten. Gender and women’s historian Julie Des Jardins is shedding some light on this, highlighting how and why women’s history has been cast aside for what she calls “great man history.”
“Even if women did accidentally appear under the klieg lights of historians, historians found a way to unexplain their reason for being there,” says Julie. “Retrieving the stories of women in the past means redefining those categories of experience we think relevant or noteworthy, as well as redefining ‘political’ and historical ‘greatness.'”
Women have often been left out of the historical narrative. Today, how can we ensure women’s role in history isn’t forgotten?
Women have been left out of the historical narrative largely because of how we, historically, have defined the historically noteworthy. The “historical” has often been defined in masculine terms. In other words, those things deemed appropriate to be recorded and remembered as important in the annals of history have tended to be those events and figures in the cultural masculine (public) endeavors of politics, statecraft, business, and war. Historians of women have had to ask different questions and look under different proverbial rocks in the past to find the women.
I’d say we’ve had to find women in their hiding places, except that they weren’t hiding — they were either operating in spheres of influence historians didn’t care to examine or in fields of endeavor historians didn’t think important. Much of the history people know is what I call “great man history.” To do women justice, I have had to question the conventions of that kind of storytelling. Is the historically relevant just about individuals who have stood out in masculine realms of activity? Can history also be about the daily, the domestic, and the personal? Women have a place in history if we use different tools, methods, and frameworks for writing and telling history.
Similarly, how do we uncover the hidden histories of native peoples, Black Americans, Asian Americans, etc.?
These histories can only rise to consciousness if we expand our definitions of history to include the stories beyond our conventional notions of history, which have really, in essence, privileged white, male history. You’ve heard the saying that history is the story of the victors? Well, subaltern and other historians try to capture the subjectivities of those not considered the victors, the privileged, the default. When we tell stories from different perspectives than the conventional ones and earnestly try to see the story from other points of view, the courage, significance, greatness, and lessons all these historical actors can teach us will come into view.
Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920, which really wasn’t that long ago. How has the delay in women’s rights over the years impacted present-day women?
The relative lateness in winning suffrage has meant that of course women’s relationship to politics and political power was stunted for a long time and continues to manifest in presumptions we still make about “women’s” issues being apolitical. Women have not shed the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding them as domestic beings, which were used to justify women not getting the vote in the first place. As arbiters of the domestic sphere, women supposedly were the moral influence on their children and need not get sullied by the corruption of power in the public political sphere. Even today, residues of those assumptions remain, forcing women in politics to have to navigate very different terrain than male political candidates.
History is often lacking the why behind something that happened. What is the importance of presenting how events unfolded, specifically relating to women’s history?
For people who study history formally, their inquiry is centered around why. Perhaps in some high school history courses, it was all about names and dates, and not a lot of emphasis on why things happened, but disagreements between historians rarely occur because people dispute simple facts. The disagreements are over the why.
The analysis of why is important whether you study economic history or social history or cultural history — and yes, also the history of women although perhaps the disagreements are over which levers are controlling the why. Why did women operate in different spheres of influence in American history and thus get understood as primarily domestic beings and caretakers? Why was it considered inappropriate for a woman to vote? Why did notions of gendered spheres differ for women in different communities? Why and how did those presumptions of gendered divisions of spheres differ for working women and women of color? This is the essence of historical inquiry.
It’s no secret history impacts our future. What trends do you see for future women after studying women’s history?
I think of what I do as putting women past and women present in conversation, hoping that this conversation sheds light on ways we might want to shape the future. The history of American women has taught us that American women are not a monolithic group with the same interests. White women fought for the vote at the expense of Black women, for example. Affluent women have been liberated from domestic toil by putting it on the backs of less affluent women. Women of certain ethnicities and affiliations have aligned often with men of the same ethnicities and affiliations before aligning with other women.
At this moment, we look back at second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 70s and realize that feminists didn’t do enough in their activism to account for differences between women. The collective past of American feminists has taught us to broaden the tent and account for differences, and even celebrate them. In the near future, this is the lesson of the past I see most ready to be heeded. Younger feminists definitely account for this broader tent and take for granted that their fight is bigger than the one fought by feminists before them.
We understand the importance of learning from the past, especially when it comes to big moments, but what is the impact of simpler things? Like access (or lack of) to birth control or the labor shortages in the 40s that sent middle-class women to work? How can we apply these lessons to issues we face today?
Because these are cultural events and events involving women, they are not seen as “big moments,” but they are monumental. For a historian of women, the big events aren’t wars and elections necessarily, (though absolutely those things affect women profoundly), but rather the events that have a more lasting impact on women such as having access to better-paying work in the public sphere and being able to have sex without worrying about pregnancy. In my women’s history classes the periodization of eras and big moments looks very different than a standard American history course filled with landmarks like the Revolution, Civil War, and WWII. Instead, I teach about the rise of republican motherhood, first-wave feminism growing out of abolition, and the suffrage movement, to name a few.
To read about Julie’s work, visit her website juliedesjardinshistorian.com.