In Praise of Women's History

Today, Women's History Month begins. Even a cursory look into the past reveals that women have been continually written out of history, except in the most exceptional cases--just as we are often unrecognized today. As a result, some think we haven't always accomplished great things. A dive into the historical record shows that we have. And apart from our accomplishments in the public sphere, women create life. Each human begins in a woman's body and emerges from there, in most cases being loved by a woman until it's possible to survive without her. It doesn't get more profound than that.

Several years ago, I had the joy of learning about Lucretia Mott, a Quaker political activist. Less than five feet tall and weighing under 100 pounds, with a voice described as pleasant and sweet, Mott was a powerful crusader against slavery, for equal rights for women, and for peace. She was born on Nantucket in 1793 and died at 87, a mother of six and grandmother to many more, in Cheltenham, PA in 1880. A neighborhood near my home in Cheltenham was named after her--La Mott--on the site of her former home. Yet Mott's home was not preserved, her lifetime's fiery speeches are rarely cited, and most people have never heard of her--nor of her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with whom Mott and other Quaker women created the first women's rights convention in the U.S. (Not till seventy years after did American women gain the right to vote.) Here's a pungent bit from Elizabeth Cady Stanton's keynote address at this first convention in Seneca Falls, NY, in July 1848:

"The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of woman, the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source." 

I hope you'll have occasion to dip into stories of women in history this month. Is there a woman you've heard of whose life story you'd like to know? Find a book on her. Enlarge your understanding. We are joined to women of the past as deeply as to our own mothers and sisters. And if there's someone you think I should know about, email me! I'd love to hear from you.

And here's an essay I wrote that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer during Women's History Month in 2016. Is there a woman whose history you want to make sure is remembered? 

In the Name of Fairness, Don't Erase Women's HistoryCommentary: In the name of fairness, don't erase women's history

As a writer of historical documentaries and novels, I know more than a passing bit about American women who have all but vanished from contemporary accounts. I'm often appalled at most women's systematic erasure. Yet few things puzzle me more than their ongoing absence from the names and descriptions of homes.

If history's women hadn't been delegated the tasks of home and family - and jointly valorized for and consumed by this work - perhaps it wouldn't strike me as an outrage when a historic home bears the name of its adult male occupant alone and when women are left out of its description. But America's historic homes were built when a woman's near-magical homemaking properties were much lauded - in a centuries-long campaign advocating women's place within their walls. How is it that, in the names and summaries affixed to the locations where women labored - lacking basic civil rights, a fact that helped lock them in their "place" - their crucial lives disappear?

America's foremothers knew they were being imprisoned and erased. This awareness galvanized those who fought for suffrage and other rights, as well as many literary authors, such as Kate Chopin (see The Awakening, 1899) and Dorothy Canfield Fisher (see her lengthy 1911 novel, The Squirrel-Cage). Anyone who knows women's history could list several dozen such women before morning coffee and dozens more after.

Yet recently, for a history-class speech she would give while dressed as Martha Washington, my seventh-grade daughter was looking up a historic home in Philadelphia, and in several places, only the male inhabitants' names and life stories were included. How one saddens to think of George Washington's loneliness while he spent entire summers solo, apart from meetings with his cabinet; how one wonders at an earlier occupant transforming his cottage into an enormous house so he could wander its rooms talking only to himself. Lacking time to dig deeper, my daughter wrote "and their families" into the speech.

That particular historic house deserves kudos for events and exhibits that highlight women, the enslaved, indentured, and employed, just as they should. But America's historic homes too often remain festooned with monikers and descriptions that exclude women. Consider the Richard Wall House in Cheltenham or the Hendrick I. Lott House in Brooklyn. I mean no disrespect to the dedicated people who maintain these old homes when I note that the still-used names and current descriptions of too many places leave out their female occupants.

The naming of homes is a variable endeavor. Some are named for renowned inhabitants; the Harriet Beecher Stowe House in Hartford, Conn., and the Walt Whitman House in Camden come to mind. Others are named after locations, such as Mount Vernon. To an extent, exclusionary naming and describing can be attributed to property ownership; it's easy to call a house by the name on the deed. There were female property owners, however, as a look at a map of, say, 18th-century Philadelphia reveals.

But even when ownership explains the naming, consider how keeping this name perpetuates discrimination. Laws barred married women from holding separate property rights, and widows and children often lost their homes when husbands died. A state-by-state fight was necessary to gain property rights for married women.

It appears that marriage is still the pursuit most guaranteed to dampen evidence of one's existence. I could write several letters a week to top newspapers protesting their extreme slighting of a woman equally involved in a venture with her husband. Here's one example of erasure in my own life: For several years, the township where I live sent its letters - to my jointly titled home - addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. His First Name and Last Name," though no such legal entity as Mrs. His First Name and Last Name exists. As the home's licensed business owner who paid township taxes, I was overjoyed to find that I did not exist and therefore could stop submitting checks. (I do still pay.) When I called to request that letters include my name, an unsympathetic woman explained that there was room for his name only in their letter-generating database.

Why should it be - even in the squirrel-cages or temples where women have acted out life's purportedly most noble intentions and have daily proved our mettle - that evidence of us is banished?

Names are meaningful, a point borne up by current struggles over names of colleges and sports teams. All historic homes ought to include female occupants in their names, descriptions, and programs. Through such changes, women's lives can be reclaimed - until there will be no purpose for a women's history month, because both sexes will continue to matter.

Janet BentonComment