To get women into the history curriculum faces systemic barriers at present, but it also faces barriers from the past, mainly that women’s voices, works, and ideas are harder to know than those of men. Dr. Bettany Hughes suggested that only 0.5% of history is written about women. Historian, Aparna Basu proclaimed, “The only women who found a place in traditional history text books were either women who successfully performed male roles or whom great men loved.” It is no wonder that teachers teach his-story… it’s the only one out there!
History was written largely by men and about men. Even when women wrote histories, they wrote about men. The field of history focused on politics, diplomacy, business, and the military: the essential absence of women in these areas would have made a women’s history impossible. The relatively new desire to write social history from the bottom up created space for a branch of history about women and the opportunity to find the voices of women from the past.
Women historians in the late 19th century and early 20th century began writing professionally about women past and present in order to close the gaps on what we know about women’s past. They sometimes co-wrote with their historian husbands. This paralleled the rise of women’s colleges. These women tended to write about women, but certainly would not have considered that they were creating a new field of history. But this was not the beginning of women’s historical writing.
Unprofessional women historians from around the world wrote centuries before the professional women of the last centuries. At best, their lack of education, gender, and focus on women’s issues kept their works hidden, at worst, blatant sexism, violence, and repression banished their works forever. It has been the work of these women’s historians in the last century to bring the work of their sisters from the past into the light.
Women’s absence from the history classroom has falsely left us with the impression that their thoughts and feelings on major issues were not recorded. And yet, in every period and in every culture, when women were barred from academia, discouraged, even forced from literacy, women wrote, drew, and told their stories. The problem faced by historians is that the volume of women writers is fewer, the authority of the women writers is always questioned, and the sexism or issues of their time led to many women writers being hidden.
The first professional historians were Greek and Roman, it is from them that western precedent for defining history as his-story, and certainly not hers, comes. Classicist Mary Beard explained that in the ancient tradition, female subordination was an important part of being a man and was deeply engrained in the culture and accounts of the time. She did a gendered analysis of Homer’s The Odyssey using Penelope as an example. In the story, she said, “as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to control the public utterance and to silence the female of the species.“ She explained that entire works were dedicated to the absurdity and inferiority of female power. Examining the stories about the mythical Amazon women, Beard concluded that, “The underlying point was that it was the duty of man to save civilisation from the rule of women.“ She elegantly showed that oratory and power in the west have always seemed to be a male sphere of influence.
Finding the works of women is one of the hardest challenges in doing women’s history. The assumption that women did not record their history, as a justification of not digging for it, allows the mistakes of our past to repeat: our ancestors neglected the stories of women, and we fulfill the cycle by not examining their lives and records. Rosalind Miles suggested, “For even the most cursory survey of women’s work reveals that its range, quantity and significance has been massively underestimated, not least by women themselves.” Women have been writing their stories since the beginning of writing, but few of their stories have made the cannon of historical reading.
Women Authors Were Rare and Privileged In China, the first historians did not emerge until the Later Han Empire (23-220) at which point there was stability and wealth, which usually led to opportunities for women intellectuals and leaders. And for the Han, this was certainly true. The first woman historian was Ban Zhao (45-117). She was from a prominent and accomplished Chinese family, well integrated into the imperial court. Her father Ban Biao, was a historian eager to write a better history than his predecessors. He began writing a many volume text too ambitious to complete in his lifetime, so Ban Zhao took on the task of finishing it. She was a tutor at the Dongguan Imperial Library and was permitted access to the texts and archives. In her role as a teacher in the imperial court, Ban Zhao taught astronomy, mathematics, history, Confucian classics, and traditional feminine virtues. She educated some of the most powerful women in China including the empress, the emperor’s concubines, and ladies-in-waiting.
Surrounded by powerful and bright women, it is not surprising that after finishing her father’s history, Ban Zhao wrote about women. She wrote a manual for women’s education that largely emphasized their submission and was the first Chinese philosophy about women, which endured far beyond her lifetime. Ban Zhao was not immune to her time; her ideas were heavily influenced by the dominant Confucian thought. Confucianism valued filial piety, or respect for and obedience to one’s ancestors. It encouraged strict hierarchies within families where ones authority was garnered by age and gender, with women being subordinate. Ban Zhao wrote:
“A woman (ought to) have four qualifications: (1) womanly virtue; (2) womanly words; (3) womanly bearing; and (4) womanly work. Now what is called womanly virtue need not be brilliant ability, exceptionally different from others. Womanly words need be neither clever in debate nor keen in conversation. Womanly appearance requires neither a pretty nor a perfect face and form. Womanly work need not be work done more skilfully than that of others.”
She encouraged women to go about their work wholeheartedly and to submit to her husband and his family in all things. Who knows what pressure she felt to uphold these ideals of male domination and superiority. Perhaps she feared that her work would be discarded if not in line with contemporary thinkers? Or, perhaps Ban Zhao saw her instructions as woman’s path to relative liberation? Modern intellectuals often critique her work as diminishing of women’s role and potential, and perhaps they are correct, but without Ban Zhao attention to women’s education may not have come at all.
Despite being honored by the empress upon her death, Ban Zhao’s work was ignored by male scholars and too intellectually sophisticated and literarily out of reach of most women readers. But as demand for women’s literacy grew, so did readership and her prominence. So much so that later women authors would predominantly cite Ban Zhao as a reference on women’s position and education. But Ban Zhao was unique because of her position. And for most of world history it would be only the privileged who would write history, Ban Zhao being no different. Her instructions to women perhaps ignored the plight of women, especially poor women, in China, and did nothing to address widespread female infanticide.
In the west, the first known female professional historian was Byzantine Princess Anna Comnena (1083-1153), who, similar to Ban Zhao, was a noble woman whose incredible privileges allowed her to record her ideas on philosophy and history. Her life was wildly fascinating. She was a primary witness to both her father and brother’s reign. She also plotted to overthrow her brother and place her husband on the throne, a plot that failed leading to her forced seclusion in a covenant for the remainder of her life. She wrote her history with the aid of the monks while imprisoned in 12th century. Her fifteen volume historical account was based on records available at the covenant and her own experience, which included the first Crusade. She was contemptuous toward the westerners, whom she saw as barbaric looters that failed to defend Constantinople. Her history was more accurate than some of her male contemporaries who tended to exaggerate. Her book is certainly biased toward her father, glossing over some of his failings as a ruler, but her unique insider perspective made it colorful and illustrative. She wrote of her repugnance at her husband’s timidity and failure to secure the throne. She speculated that, “perhaps their genders should have been reversed.”
Of course she, like other historians, wrote about politics and the military, but similar to Ban Zhao saw an opportunity to write about women. She honored her grandmother, Anna Dalassena. She said:
“It may cause some surprise that my father the Emperor had raised his mother to such a position of honor, and that he had handed complete power over to her. Yielding up the reins of government, one might say, he ran alongside her as she drove the imperial chariot...
“My father reserved for himself the waging of wars against the barbarians, while he entrusted to his mother the administration of state affairs, the choosing of civil servants, and the fiscal management of the empire's revenues and expenses. One might perhaps, in reading this, blame my father's decision to entrust the imperial government to the gyneceum. But once you understood the ability of this woman, her excellence, her good sense, and her remarkable capacity for hard work, you would turn from criticism to admiration.
“For my grandmother really had the gift of conducting the affairs of state. She knew so well how to organize and administer that she was capable of governing not only the Roman Empire but also every other kingdom under the sun....She was very shrewd in seizing on whatever was called for, and clever in carrying it out with certitude. Not only did she have an outstanding intelligence, but her powers of speech matched it. She was a truly persuasive orator, in no way wordy or long-winded...
“As for her compassion toward the poor and the lavishness of her hand toward the destitute, how can words describe these things? Her house was a shelter for her needy relatives, and it was no less a haven for strangers....Her expression, which revealed her true character, demanded the worship of the angels but struck terror among demons...”
Her defense of her grandmother is striking for it demonstrates that her grandmother did not earn this recognition in her time, and shows the ways in which women exercised the power they were given even in a time when expectations were heavily gendered.
Her work like Ban Zhao’s did not rise to prominence like those of male historians. As always it was factors greater than her womanhood. She was a traitor to her brother’s throne and holed up in a covenant. Nevertheless, her writing was significant and modern historians need not repeat history by ignoring her account.
Kelsie Eckert is the founder of the Remedial Herstory Project. She is the host of the Remedial Herstory podcast. You can read her full bio on the About page.
The history curriculum in schools is insufficient in their representation of women’s contribution to past events. This blog aims to address that. While teachers want to include women’s history, they have not had access to the training, modeling, and resources to do it effectively. Women make up fifty percent of the global population, and yet are in a small fraction of events discussed in school. Women’s choices have been harrowing, infamous, and monumental, and yet their stories are so rarely associated with mainstream history. Ask your average high school graduate, or even college graduate, to name 20 significant men in history and the list flows easily. Ask that same person to name 20 women and the names drag, if they come at all. This case in point leaves us with conclusions like, “women did not do as much” or “women’s stories were not recorded.” These assertions justify our own indifference to the history of half the human race, and could not be further from the truth.