All women make history (we just need to tell it)

Women’s history month raises awareness of women’s achievements in all aspects of life and shines a light on the vision for a fairer world where all are treated equally.

The ratio of one month out of 12 seems generous in comparison to the way women are represented in history and culture. The numbers drop even further when looking for anyone other than white women being represented.

I studied History at university many years ago. The degree content was refreshing after a school curriculum focused on Roman Britain, Henry VIII and Britain at War in the Twentieth Century. My university had a School of African and Asian Studies and students who signed up for any History degree could take courses from other university schools as part of their study. In fact, it was encouraged and was a great opportunity. History is so much more interesting when viewed from different perspectives.

At the time there were few female voices among the professors and lecturers, fewer still from diverse backgrounds. Olivette Otele was the first black woman to be awarded a full professorship and chair of history at a UK university. She was appointed less than three years ago. 

Silencing the female voice has been the norm for centuries. It is dangerous in many ways.

Right now, we’re in a global pandemic that has pressed many women into longer hours juggling work and caring roles. In the midst of this, attempts to speak up about how women are often held responsible for the actions of violent and controlling men have been met with resistance.  

There are two often quoted statements about history: “History is written by the victors” and “Well behaved women seldom make history”.

The “victors” in historic terms were overwhelmingly male and wealthy or sheltered, in every sense, by a religious scholastic life. Educated men writing for a male readership, there was limited chance for anyone other than their peers to critique the work. Women were recorded as saints, wicked, or victims.

“Well behaved women” is often misquoted as a rallying cry for action, and it works well in reminding that a demure approach rarely gets noticed. But the comment was initially written as a call to take note of the role all women play in shaping history despite their actions rarely being documented.

This is well captured by a tale Sandy Toksvig tells from her university days. She was taking a degree in anthropology and her lecturer showed the class a photo of an ancient antler bone marked with 28 notches. It was being put forward as an example of man’s first attempt at a calendar. The lecturer asked her class, including a young Sandy, what man has need to know a 28-day cycle? Pointing out the historic markings were much more likely to be made by a woman.

Even when a woman literally leaves her mark, she runs the risk of being written out of history.

Being seen and heard matters. LGBT+, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and many many more who rarely make the footnotes of history can and should be recognised at the start, not as an afterthought if at all.

As communicators, we work hard on building rapport with an audience, understanding different perspectives and using the right language for positive change.  We can all do better, no matter our own gender or backgrounds, to make sure we are working together for a better future.

At the end of Women’s History Month, it is well worth taking time to look at how we are shaping today’s stories that will become tomorrow’s history for our communities.

Embracing and resonating wider experiences must be an integral part of future reporting, storytelling and historic study.

Alix Macfarlane is the Chair of LGcomms and Head of Communications & Engagement at West Sussex County Council. You can find her on Twitter @AlixMac.

The photo is of Alix’s great grandmother Gwendoline Oldershaw and grandmother Jeanie Clark (who died in January aged 102), taken in late 1918.


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