WHY WE’RE PUTTING WOMEN BACK INTO HISTORY
Co-writers of a new book give overdue recognition to awesome females through time.
Our history lessons, museums and statues tell us that, with a few notable exceptions, it was mainly men doing the inventing, pioneering and hell-raising. But these three women, the co-founders of On This Day She, are determined to show that women have simply been hidden from our eyes and ears. Until now.
“Christmas 2016 I was given an ‘On This Day in History’ calendar — with an important event to read about on each day of 2017. As the year progressed I realised that, although I was finding it really interesting, there were hardly any women mentioned. The first was at the end of February! Only 20 by the end of July. Each day I tore off the previous day’s sheet and got a bit more angry.
In the autumn I was having a day out with my writer friends Jo Bell and Tania Hershman. Over a cuppa and some sort of cake I told them about the calendar and how cross it was making me. They shared my anger and we all decided we should do something about it. We settled on Twitter as a forum because this was going to be a spare-time, unpaid project and we wanted something manageable and free!
We all confess now that we—all writers, all feminists, all graduates of science, literary history, archaeology—were all a little unsure about finding enough women to feature someone significant every day. But we started to dig — in dusty history books, in the dustier corners of the internet —and came up with such wonders. So many women! Who’d done all sorts of stuff! For thousands of years!
And this of course only increased our rage as we took in the full scope of the double silencing of women. Discouraged/‘forbidden’ from being active outside the home or in work beyond manual work, those who persisted and managed somehow to be scientists, writers, activists, sportswomen, have been left out of history.
Why? Because many historians seem to have been able only to see those who look like themselves and most historians have been (white) men. Because chronicling history is an activity that takes time (and therefore money), education and resources, it has most often been the preserve of those who have all of these things. Even now, when women have equal access to education, further on down the career path, childcare eats more into women’s research time than men’s. We’ve seen that so clearly during the current pandemic, when the contributions of female academics to journals has fallen sharply while men’s submissions have increased.
So we’re building on the work done by (mostly female) historians and bringing these women out of the specialist academic world and into the limelight where they belong, hoping that names such as Flora Tristan, Florence Price, Hypatia and Wilma Rudolph will become as much household names as Karl Marx, Stravinsky, Archimedes and Jesse Owens.”
“We’ve got the skills needed for research – Tania as a former journalist, Ailsa and I as scholars or archaeologists used to working with archives – and as the project went on, our indignation was renewed with every entry. We found many examples of historians not simply overlooking women, but going to some trouble to look the other way altogether.
For me, one of the most blood-boiling examples was the Viking warrior who was excavated in 1878 in Sweden. This important individual was held up as a completely archetypal tenth-century warrior – until, in 2017, DNA analysis proved that she was a woman. Suddenly, a storm of criticism came down on the experts who had done the analysis. People have fixed ideas about what women did in the past and it is very hard for them to adjust those preconceptions; much easier to just mock the experts who found something unexpected. The archaeologists had to publish a second paper in 2019 with further explanations.
So, as a culture we aren’t just surprised when women appear in history; we work really hard to keep them out. Even where they are remembered, they are often shown as half-naked, young, busty and white. We three authors want to rebalance the record so that all readers can start to challenge the usual histories they read. Women were always activists, scholars and explorers; we want readers to be more aware of how the current world has been shaped by women, as well as men.”
“It’s been important to us from the very beginning that we not only include women who are inspiring and awesome. While we are so delighted to see so many books out now about “badass” women that are brilliant role models, especially for young people, this isn’t the aim of either our Twitter account or our book. Our mission is to fill in some of the enormous gaps in human history – and we believe women deserve to be put back into history on equal footing with men. Not all the men that history remembers were inspiring. So for this reason we include what we refer to as “grim” women, on Twitter and in our book.
For example, our entry for March 3rd is Dagmar Overbye: “On this day in 1921, Danish serial killer Dagmar Overbye was sentenced to death for killing nine children, including her own daughter, in one of Denmark’s most notorious trials.” When we tweet about women like this – be they murderers, corrupt politicians or otherwise unsavoury characters, we invariably face the response, “Well, I’m not celebrating her!” and we have to explain, again and again, that we’re not “celebrating” her either. As we say in the introduction to March in the book, “Women are not here to inspire you. Women are not your muses. They are real, flesh-and-blood, often flawed, humans. Yes, many of them are astonishing, brave and worthy of emulation and celebration, but to highlight only these women would be doing women – and men – a disservice. It is not just men throughout history who have behaved badly, and until we bring these women out of the shadows, history will be incomplete, and women will still be expected to be exemplary, ‘ladylike’, instead of just simply human beings.”
Words: Ailsa Holland, Jo Bell & Tania Hershman.
Published to coincide with Interational Women’s Day, On This Day She is a John Blake publication.