I am not an historian. History, after all, is written by the winners, and while I may have achieved a small amount of success in one field, I certainly don’t feel like a winner.
I could, perhaps, have become an historian. I very much enjoyed the subject at school. I also voraciously devoured stories of past times. But it was clear to me at the time that history was very much his story. It was about the winners, the men.
Oh, there were always exceptions: Helen, Cassandra, Dido, Cleopatra, Matilda, Eleanor, Elizabeth and Mary. But exceptions were what they were, and their stories, no matter how glorious, or more often inglorious, came to us filtered. They were always written by men.
To write about women’s history, therefore, requires a fair amount of original research. We don’t know as much about the women of past times as we do about their male counterparts. And we are not sure that we can believe what we are told. Take Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example: she married the King of France, then divorced him to marry the King of England; she was mother to Richard the Lionheart and John; and she was a leading figure in the Courtly Love movement. She must have been an amazing woman, but I can’t recall my history books even mentioning her. When I was a kid, the history of those times was all about Richard. I doubt that it is that much different today.
It is not only women, of course, who lose. History also tends not to talk about the poor, the conquered, the powerless. History is the story of the rich, the powerful, the mighty. Modern historians are making a determined effort to turn that around, but it is hard, because they have so much less to go on. Because to make history, to be remembered, you have to be a winner.
Let’s fast forward to today. Where is history being made? An obvious place is in encyclopedias. That’s where people are writing down information about how we live now, and about the past, which will be read by historians in the future. I’m going to single out Wikipedia, not because I think it is the best or worst of modern encyclopedias, but because its open nature allows us to see social dynamics being worked out in its creation.
In January this year the New York Times published an article claiming that less than 15% of the material in Wikipedia is written by women. Once again, history is being written by men. And is that because they are somehow “winning”? This blog post, exploring the reasons by more women don’t contribute to Wikipedia, and written by the Executive Director of the Wikimedia Foundation, no less, suggests that in many cases this is true. Just as in so many other aspects of life, women who want to edit Wikipedia have to fight to have their voices heard, or at least feel as if they do. Often they simply can’t be bothered, or don’t have the time, to play dominance games.
I’m not trying to single out Wikipedia here. It is simply that its open nature allows us to see easily the same sorts of conflicts that are played out every day in homes and offices all over the world. Sexism isn’t something that men necessarily choose to do. All too often it is an attitude that they have been raised to believe is natural and right, and which they have adopted without thinking. Getting rid of such attitudes is a project that will take generations, not years.
In the meantime, we have to leave what history we can. Those historians of the future won’t all be lazy. They won’t all turn to the most obvious sources. If we can leave our own history then it should be found, and hopefully taken into account. And that’s why I am happy to contribute to things like Women’s History Month. It says that we are here, and it says that we matter.
Cheryl Morgan is the non-fiction editor of the Hugo Award winning Clarkesworld Magazine. She also edits the literary review magazine, Salon Futura which is published by her company, Wizard's Tower Press. The company runs an online store selling DRM-free ebooks with no region restrictions.