Feminism Friday: Herstory

Yes, I know the “his” in history is nothing to do with men. And the first time I heard the word “herstory” I thought it was one of those “political correctness gone mad” things* but the fact is that the history that we are taught is male-centred. (*Whenever anyone says “political correctness gone mad” Richard Littlejohn does a bit of excitement-wee.)

I read a while ago that the actress Hedy Lamarr invented the technology that we use for bluetooth and wifi. We went on a boat tour in London last week and learned that women built Waterloo Bridge. And then I read yesterday that women “invented all the core technologies that made civilization possible.”

But I knew that, I learned that at school. Oh wait no I bloody didn’t.

I read the above quote on Cory Doctorow’s tumblr (tweeted by Sam Baker) and I urge you to read the full thing. So much so that I’m posting it below to make it easier. But the quote comes from this  post – Patriarchy in action: the New York Times rewrites history – by Dr Violet Socks and I urge you to read all of that post too. (Remember the Miss Rep How the Media Failed Women in 2013 video? Remember the guy who said “women just haven’t done much”?)

“Women invented all the core technologies that made civilization possible. This isn’t some feminist myth; it’s what modern anthropologists believe. Women are thought to have invented pottery, basketmaking, weaving, textiles, horticulture, and agriculture. That’s right: without women’s inventions, we wouldn’t be able to carry things or store things or tie things up or go fishing or hunt with nets or haft a blade or wear clothes or grow our food or live in permanent settlements. Suck on that.

Women have continued to be involved in the creation and advancement of civilization throughout history, whether you know it or not. Pick anything—a technology, a science, an art form, a school of thought—and start digging into the background. You’ll find women there, I guarantee, making critical contributions and often inventing the damn shit in the first place.

Women have made those contributions in spite of astonishing hurdles. Hurdles like not being allowed to go to school. Hurdles like not being allowed to work in an office with men, or join a professional society, or walk on the street, or own property. Example: look up Lise Meitner some time. When she was born in 1878 it was illegal in Austria for girls to attend school past the age of 13. Once the laws finally eased up and she could go to university, she wasn’t allowed to study with the men. Then she got a research post but wasn’t allowed to use the lab on account of girl cooties. Her whole life was like this, but she still managed to discover nuclear fucking fission. Then the Nobel committee gave the prize to her junior male colleague and ignored her existence completely.

Men in all patriarchal civilizations, including ours, have worked to downplay or deny women’s creative contributions. That’s because patriarchy is founded on the belief that women are breeding stock and men are the only people who can think. The easiest way for men to erase women’s contributions is to simply ignore that they happened. Because when you ignore something, it gets forgotten. People in the next generation don’t hear about it, and so they grow up thinking that no women have ever done anything. And then when women in their generation do stuff, they think ‘it’s a fluke, never happened before in the history of the world, ignore it.’ And so they ignore it, and it gets forgotten. And on and on and on. The New York Times article is a perfect illustration of this principle in action.

Finally, and this is important: even those women who weren’t inventors and intellectuals, even those women who really did spend all their lives doing stereotypical “women’s work”—they also built this world. The mundane labor of life is what makes everything else possible. Before you can have scientists and engineers and artists, you have to have a whole bunch of people (and it’s usually women) to hold down the basics: to grow and harvest and cook the food, to provide clothes and shelter, to fetch the firewood and the water, to nurture and nurse, to tend and teach. Every single scrap of civilized inventing and dreaming and thinking rides on top of that foundation. Never forget that.”