For more than three decades, March has been designated as Women’s History Month. You would think that a historian like me, who has devoted 15 years to trying to win recognition for the many female sovereigns whose achievements and influence have been grievously overlooked, would be heartened by this attempt to combat the prejudices of the past. But I am not happy about Women’s History Month. I think it is a mistake, just as I think having a separate Women’s Studies curriculum or building a National Women’s History Museum in Washington, D.C., is a mistake.
It’s not that I think feminine accomplishments should be ignored, that students should not be required to study and learn about them. But by allowing women to be shunted off to the side in this way — for no matter how impressive the academic department, or how large the museum, or how many previously unknown females are highlighted in the month of March, that is what we are doing — we ensure that women remain a subset of history rather than integral components of recognized major events.
In my field in particular — European history — the almost complete exclusion of female leadership from survey courses has ingrained in the general population the idea that (with the possible exception of Elizabeth I and now, thanks to PBS and Netflix, Victoria and Elizabeth II as well), women played no role in the momentous wars and political intrigues that are ticked off one by one in the average Western Civilization lecture series. This casual diminishing of half the population has led to all sorts of ludicrous explanations for pivotal episodes, one of the most droll being that angels led Joan of Arc to the court of the hapless dauphin, Charles VII. In fact, it was Yolande of Aragon, queen of Sicily, the dauphin’s mother-in-law and one of the most competent and effective politicians in world history, who was responsible for recruiting Joan of Arc, just as it was Yolande who financed and organized the army that relieved the siege of Orléans, universally recognized as the turning point in the Hundred Years’ War. Yet when this period is covered in high schools and colleges, you won’t find any of this on the syllabus.
I have experienced this sort of careless historical chauvinism personally. Three years ago, the radio talk show host Leonard Lopate (since removed for sexual harassment charges), while interviewing me about the 16th-century French Queen Catherine de’ Medici, fatuously observed that Catherine was best known for having brought “fine cuisine to France.” Since Catherine de’ Medici, who ruled for nearly three decades, was responsible for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre at which thousands of French Protestants, known as Huguenots, were slaughtered in Paris, this was akin to saying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s major achievement is importing a French chef to Damascus. I was shocked that he said this, but Lopate didn’t seem embarrassed, because as an educated person he felt that if Catherine de’ Medici had actually been a figure of real historical significance, he would surely have learned about her in school.
I could list dozens of examples of women who have changed the course of western civilization, exercised real power, divided up Europe, restored the papacy to Rome, started major wars, ended major wars, conducted complex political and financial negotiations at the very top levels of government, and dictated political and economic policies that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of their subjects. Yet hardly any of these women rate even two sentences in a textbook or as part of the core curriculum in an AP European history or university course, so they remain invisible.
A good part of the reason for this is that we have allowed ourselves to be contented with the sop of parallel studies and a single month devoted to women’s achievements. It takes the heat off conservative academics who think that female influence is overrated and that in any event there is no need to incorporate these figures further as a separate discipline exists to address this subject. So what looks like inclusion is actually exclusion.
Of course, no scholar will go on record as not wanting to change a course to include women; and their feelings on the subject may well be subconscious, or unconsidered. But the survey courses and textbooks have not been changed to include female leadership (except for Elizabeth I), which means that there has been at best general ignorance or at worst deliberate omission. This is obvious from even the most cursory perusal of on-line college syllabuses and sample test questions for A.P. European history.
When Women’s History Month — or Black History Month for that matter — was initiated it was a necessary first step towards remedying inequality. But it has been over 30 years now and the achievements of powerful women of the distant past are still almost totally unrecognized. As Morgan Freeman said in a 2005 interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, “I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.” That is exactly how I feel about Women’s History Month. Women’s history is world history.
Like so many others, I have been inspired by the recent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. They are to today what feminism was to the 1970s. But they also show that we still have a long way to go, and part of that means rethinking how we teach history. We cannot hope to lay claim to the future if we don’t start owning the past.
Nancy Goldstone is the author of Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots, among other books.