Women’s history, as most understand it, is a relatively insignificant history. It is a polite history that must dress up nicely, and smile often in order to be heard. Next to the daunting history of Jews, of African Americans, of the working class, women’s history stands alone as singularly benign.
Women’s history, as it is often presented to the general public, is a heartening one. This version of history, put forth during Women’s History Month, in school books, and on postage stamps, highlights accomplished women who contributed something unique to society, or who became a “first female” within men’s domain during a less enlightened era.
Women’s history, particularly in academia, is also a humble history. It is about the experiences and struggles of ordinary women—female laborers, female slaves, farmer’s wives, upper-middle class mothers, rural midwives, prostitutes, nuns—reminding us that women are infinitely diverse. This history of women is as vast as the earth is round, and if women were not so marginalized and overlooked, it would twist and wind like a strand of DNA alongside the history of men.
Finally, women’s history, as it is usually encapsulated, is the struggle for the vote. Women were denied the right to vote, fought for the franchise for several decades, and finally won. Those who know the subject matter with more depth also know about women’s struggles for the right to own property, the right to divorce, the right to keep their wages. Here women’s history is a series of advancements, a gradual evolution toward civil equality. Outmoded traditions and unfair laws were gradually chipped away. Opportunities for women expanded as society discovered that women were in many senses equal to men.
The histories of other oppressed groups are far more complex and significant. Even brief descriptions of such histories assume a horrifying gravity. African Americans, for instance, struggled against slavery, lynching, segregation, and overt discrimination. American Indians were targeted victims of attempted genocide, displacement, and cultural defamation. Jews were dehumanized and then slaughtered in what became known as the Holocaust; before that, they were victims of centuries upon centuries of pogroms, expulsions, and scapegoating. Women, as women, had to fight for the vote.
It was 1990 when I came across, for the first time, an alarming account of the historical oppression of women. I was already in my late twenties. I had long ago completed three courses in women’s studies, obtained a liberal arts degree, and had become well read in leftist politics. I knew pieces of women’s history, more than most. Like most women, I knew the historical status of women wasn’t good, knew we didn’t want to go there again, and assumed we probably wouldn’t.
Then I did something very few people do: I read an obscure feminist book, Pornography and Civil Rights, by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon. In the few pages in which this book directly addressed history were facts that I either hadn’t known or had known only vaguely. More importantly, it was the first time I had read historical information presented as a serious political analysis of male supremacy. The historical oppression of women was not treated here as merely unfortunate, or as outdated foolishness. It was treated with utmost gravity—no more and no less serious than historical oppression of groups that include men. I never viewed women’s history in the same way again.
In this book I read details of the seldom acknowledged fact that until the early part of the 20th century, women were, by force of law, the property of men. A woman’s body as well as the clothes on her back belonged to her husband. If a woman ran away, her husband could legally force her to return. When a woman’s husband died, another male became the legal guardian of her children.
“The body of a married woman belonged to her husband just as a slave’s body belonged to the white master.” Sentences like this, starkly true, impolite, the stuff of man-hating, simply do not appear in most texts on the history of women.
During the early 20th century, a “single woman was under the legally formidable authority of her father or her other male relatives.” I hadn’t really known that—not exactly, not explicitly.
I also learned that the Fourteenth Amendment, which guaranteed citizens equal protection of the law, intentionally excluded women. “Intentionally,” the text said. This meant, women weren’t denied protection because of misunderstanding, ignorance, or neglect. Men targeted women, organizing among themselves to deny women the right to equal protection under the law. Rarely is this dynamic—men’s organized intention, men’s targeting of women—dealt with in accounts of the history of women.
“Only in 1971 did the Supreme Court hold that women too were entitled to the equal protection under the law promised by the Fourteenth Amendment.” I had had no idea. 1971? No idea.
I read for the first time that sex-based discrimination was included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 only because racist congressmen added it as an insulting joke in their attempt to defeat the bill. The amendment adding “sex” to the bill outraged liberal congressmen, and was “widely regarded as a moral obscenity that demeaned the whole concept of civil rights.” The addition of “sex” to the Civil Rights bill passed only because the bill could not be passed without it. Did you know that?
The history of men’s oppression of women is heartbreaking. It is almost unfathomable in its deliberate inhumanity, even more so because it so often took place within a context of familiarity and love. This oppression has been an organized violation of human beings, carried out over millennia. Men’s construction of their “superiority”, along with their systematic dehumanization of females, devastated every single generation of women and girls (as well as boys and men).
Yet the real history of sex-based oppression is buried, and allowed no name. There are serious ramifications to this silencing. Without an understanding of history, an oppressed group cannot fight for meaningful change. History is as necessary a tool to the oppressed as language itself. If language is unavailable, a people can be herded by the dominant class like sheep. So long as the history of women is unnamed, unexposed, devoid of analysis, its modern progeny—new systems of dehumanization—will continue to flourish.
The 1990s were full of examples. This decade was a sequence of one backlash after another against women’s newly won freedoms—from the mainstreaming of pornography to welfare reform’s demand for “family values.” Women for the most part lost battles against the backlash, when they fought at all, precisely because there was virtually no critical history of the oppression of women available to fight back with.
The backlash came from both the right and the left, every instance bizarrely justified as ethical and righteous. Women’s exercise of freedom was characterized as debauchery, prudery, or at the very least, unnecessary. This premise was widely accepted, on the left as well as the right, and by women as well as men. Women were on the defensive. The best that feminists were able to do, it seemed, was plead for mercy.
“Welfare reform,” which dominated public debate the first half of the 90s, was the most explicit reassertion of men’s historical ownership of women. The reactionary right sought to take away single mothers’ access to meager public support, and they made no secret of the reasons behind their goal. They wanted to reinvigorate the traditional family. They wanted to reinstate traditional family values. They pointed out that so long as women with children could choose the alternative of governmental support through welfare payments, they would not opt for economic dependency on individual men—and all that goes with that, including day to day sexual accessibility and servitude.
The welfare reform act of 1996 justifies itself with this opening: “The Congress makes the following findings: (1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” The reactionary right openly reasoned that the government has to throw women and children into impossible and unsolvable circumstances of poverty in order to reinstate to some degree men’s ownership of women, if not through marriage, than through a low wage or no wage job, which can make marriage and prostitution look pretty good.
Reactionaries’ explicit goal of economically coercing mothers on welfare into the “personal responsibility” of marriage, or a punishing job with wages too low to support children, is precisely what rallied the population as a whole against welfare mothers. The left, which opposed welfare reform with objections based primarily on class and race analyses, paid no attention to reactionaries’ central argument, which was that the government should economically manipulate single mothers into sexually intimate, economically dependent relationships with men. Though this was the basic refrain coming from the right, leftists pretended they didn’t even hear the idea mentioned. Most feminists didn’t argue with the idea, either. They pleaded for understanding: the need for education, the need for better jobs and wages, the occasional need to escape violent husbands.
Imagine if the political right began to openly demand that unemployed African Americans be required to pick cotton in exchange for food and shelter. Would the public cheer for this return to traditional values? Would the left argue for access to good sun block? Would civil rights organizations plead for leniency? Would they argue that the policy is too cruel, does not solve the unemployment problem, and is sexist and classist, affecting most of all the poor and female among those forced to pick cotton?
If the history of white oppression of African Americans were covered up, and vague recollections were romanticized and characterized as “just the way it was”; if formal accounts of history did not reveal how wrong slavery was; if indeed the word “slavery” did not exist, this kind of political campaign could happen, and could succeed.
Without access to critical history, women often end up fighting for some semblance of equality in a miasma of inconsistency and contradiction. Women struggle with present day monsters, having almost no language to resist even flagrant attempts at sex-based oppression. The language women most effectively use for resistance is borrowed from language that describes the oppression of various groups of men. Women’s historical condition at its center is presented as a void.
As a result, the modern day manifestations of men’s historically based dehumanization of women are considered acceptable, natural, even desirable. The wrongs of the past, rather than being identified as the starting point for reparation, define women as women in the collective mind and will. The paradigm of the historical oppression lives on, promoted by the reactionary right as “moral,” and treated by the left as invisible and unimportant, or as sexy liberation.
Only when we accurately name women’s history, and we publicly confront the real history of men’s oppression of women, will we be able to create a future of liberation and lasting equality.