Taking Back Women’s Histories

The 20th century was a turbulent, difficult, and amazing one in women’s history. Even as it marked the emergence of women as a social power and force to be reckoned with, who would not be ignored or pushed into the corner, it also marked an era of repression and the continual emergence of new and sneaky methods to keep women in a position of lesser status. The strides of the women’s rights movement were critical, but by no means brought about total equality, which is why it’s so important to continue the fight today — and why the decision to fight to confront, preserve, and retain women’s history is so critical.

I speak not just of the history of women in general, but of specific personal histories and of the profound effects of a life lived in a society that hates women and goes to extreme means when it comes to suppressing their testimonies, experiences, and voices. I recently read a fascinating piece profiling Jennifer Halter, who returned to the scene of her childhood abuse to pursue justice after 25 years of silence. She, along with many other girls, had been sexually assaulted in an institution, and they’d gathered together to process, confront, and challenge their abusive past while also looking for resolution.

It was particularly urgent in her case, because she was terminally ill. Such decisions to address the past often come up for people who are dying, as they want to make right with the world as they leave it and may be troubled by the thought of leaving a legacy like that behind them. But women can choose to take back their past and confront the people who abused, assaulted, demeaned, or suppressed them as young women and girls at any stage of life, and for any reason. It can be an important and even cathartic step for women struggling to come to terms with a society that wants them to remain silent and purely ornamental.

Halter’s case reminded me, in a way, of The Girls Who Went Awaya superb collection of oral histories from women who were forced to give their babies up for adoption in the era before Roe v Wade. Decades later, the experiences of these women are raw and painful, and speaking out about a taboo subject clearly provided them with an outlet for their complex and troubled emotions. In that era, adoptions were primarily closed (indeed, society had undergone a peculiar shift from basically open adoptions to closed and often shameful ones), leaving women separated from their babies at birth with no way to contact them or share information later in life.

This is radically different from the way adoption is conducted today (adult adoptees as well as women who had to surrender their children were huge contributors to adoption reform in the US, with their experiences as a grounding point for proposing new ways of thinking about and conducting adoption). It was painful, difficult, and challenging for many of the women involved, as well as adoptees who grew up wanting to know more about their birth mothers and their histories. Today, many of those same adoptees are reaching out in an attempt to find their histories.

They, along with other women (men, too, are involved, of course, as it’s not exclusively girls who were given up for adoption!), are exploring a painful and intimate period in their personal history in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their lives. This is what I mean by reclaiming history, the sense that women are taking an assertive role in taking charge of their pasts, but also speaking openly about it and creating a space in the public commons for women’s history.

Historically, the intimate details of women’s lives have been confined to ‘women’s spaces,’ and deemed to be only of interest to women. Now, these attitudes are shifting as women pry open restrictive attitudes about what kinds of histories and experiences belong where. By speaking openly, they’re challenging the norm that women’s history doesn’t matter, and they’re confronting society rather than hiding and refusing to talk about their experiences and the bitter past of this nation. This issue is particularly acute for women of colour and other minority women who have particularly complex social issues to confront as they make a rightful place for women in society.

Fighting for equality means many different things on many different levels, and we must not discount the role of women’s histories. The personal is political, and these stories matter, which is why it’s so critical to bring them out into the light instead of maintaining them in shrouds of silence and shadow. For those who want to build a more equal, safe, and open world for women, we must be able to confront our past, and the darkness that hangs over the lives of women who haven’t been able to achieve resolution or justice for the wrongs they have experienced.

I admire women who are taking an active role in reclaiming and advancing women’s history, whether they’re historians working on the cause of bringing out the role of women in history, or individuals fighting to tell their stories and confront social attitudes. In both cases, they are contributing an important component to the women’s rights movement, and to the push for full social, political, cultural, and structural equality. Without an awareness of and respect for our history, we cannot hope to challenge and reform our future.

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Image: Chapel, StudioTempura, Flickr.