‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men.’ So said Thomas Carlyle, famous Victorian man of letters, putting into words what has been, for many, the received idea about history and their experience of studying it at school and beyond.
But what of ‘herstory’?
The very concept of ‘herstory’ (history, one might say, with the women put back in) – a product of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and ‘80s – was attacked and even ridiculed at the time (and since) as tokenistic or ideological. True, herstorians, in rejecting history as ‘his story’, have missed the true etymological roots of the word (historia = a knowledge-based enquiry). However, even a passing acquaintance with the History curriculum in British schools will make clear how few female voices are heard and, as a career teacher of History, I have always been struck by the paucity of women on the syllabus. Beyond Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell and Rosa Luxemburg, the textbooks are largely silent.
The (missed) chance of having a woman in the top job in the White House as well as in Number 10 and Berlin has raised the profile of women in public life in our own day and helped to stimulate research into the many heroic women of the past whose stories remain largely untold. In truth, this work of retrieval has been going on for years, though it has yet to make much impression on the school curriculum. In 1979, for example, the American artist Judy Chicago created an art work called ‘The Dinner Party’ which identified and commemorated 1,038 great women from the past. These were the women, Ms Chicago said, who deserved an invitation to her dinner party (rather than being consigned to the kitchen, as so many women had been in the past).
International Women’s Day (IWD) provides a perfect opportunity to take stock of how far we have come in this work of unearthing remarkable female deeds and voices. Embracing this theme, at Northampton High, we decided to mark IWD 2017 with a debate on the herstoric women who have done most to change our world. Characteristically, we had several willing volunteers to stand up and promote their chosen candidate – Kate Harrison and Jess Picot nominated Rosa Parks, Zoya Bilal chose to speak about Coco Chanel, Lexy Daly and Sabrina Sheikh introduced us to Lotfia ElNadi, a pioneering aviator, while Kate Jameson and Ezri Mannion staked a claim for Eliza Shuyler Hamilton, philanthropist and abolitionist. It was exciting to learn about women whom I had never heard about before alongside more familiar individuals. All our speakers spoke with passion and conviction about their choices. Ultimately, only one nominee could be chosen and the winner was Rosa Parks.
IWD 2017 marks a very important anniversary – the centenary of the protest march by the women of St Petersburg which was instrumental in bringing down Tsar Nicholas II and setting in train the events of the Russian Revolution. These women – we do not know their names – were change-makers on a seismic scale. They never achieved the fame of a Lenin or Trotsky but their actions set in motion a revolutionary movement that changed the course of history and helped to shape our modern world in ways which we are only just beginning to understand.
We will never be able to do more than pick out a few bare threads in the narrative of world history to delineate the contribution, enterprise and sacrifice of women. However, by taking the lead from our IWD speakers this week, we can bring at least some of the great women of the past back into their rightful place in the sweep of our national and global heritage, to invite them, so to speak, to the global dinner party, and offer them a place at the table and a vote of thanks for all that they achieved.
Dr Helen Stringer, Headmistress