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 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?

Read more at "In the Name of Fairness, Don't Erase Women's History," Philadelphia Inquirer, March 20, 2016. 

Janet BentonComment