Those who know me know that I am very much into studying history and always have been, though it wasn't until the last few years that I really started immersing myself and living it. It is amazing how what you find will surprise, delight, and appall you all the same.
Now, what does all this have to do with International Women's Day, you ask? Well, as the title of this blog post says, I feel like I've been lied to all these years. See, here's the thing. Growing up and then well into my adulthood, it was constantly drilled into my head (by sources outside of my family, mind you...meaning the educational system, media, and the like) that I should feel lucky to be a woman/female in this particular time because any and all women before me (save for a couple key figures) were allowed to do absolutely nothing, had no rights whatsoever, violating them was permitted and endorsed, and the list goes on. And for a long time (despite the many strong and independent women throughout my family...amazing how outside sources can have an affect on a young mind), I believed it to be true.
Don't get me wrong. I like being a female in the 21st century, I am grateful for my right to vote, and I do not deny that women did face atrocities against them and many in the world still do. However, women's history, like many other histories, is not as cut and dry as many make it out to be. Getting the aforementioned version of women's history succeeded in making me quite the unhappy person. I was defensive, bitter, and angry without even realizing it. I resented guys, including ones I considered friends, even feared them. Again, this was without being fully aware of it, almost as if I was on autopilot to be this way or something. Then I did some soul searching and started to figure it out. At first, I resorted to saying that the past is in the past and what men prior to those of my generation did is not the fault of those living in the here and now. But that was only step one and only a mere nick on a very large iceberg.
After that, I revisited my love for history and in doing so, I started to notice things. Things that were not adding up, or fully matching the version of history and belief system that I was taught for much of my life. Then I started taking a good look at the women and men in my family - the ones of the older generations - and started to really notice that the very negative version fed to me versus how my grandparents, great grandparents, great aunts, uncles, etc. actually were differed greatly. This got the wheels in my head turning. Later on, I was doing historical research for my book series and came across even more information that - once again - didn't completely coincide with what I was taught to believe. What drove the final nail into the coffin was doing some work within the living history realm. It was at this time that I was introduced to the female blacksmiths of yesteryear (18th century, as well as other times past).
"But...but...how could women have been blacksmiths as far back as the 15th century and possibly even earlier??? I thought they weren't allowed to do anything until recently!!"
Yes, my friends...that is something I hear quite a bit at the museum when discussing blacksmithing, along with other women's occupations. I can tell that many of our visitors are expecting to hear and muse over "the usual. Of how women were chained to their hearths and not allowed any other place and are shocked when I tell them otherwise. They are also surprised when I tell them of women Elizabeth Glover, who owned the first printing press in America. During her lifetime, at least twenty-five printing presses that we know of were run by women and even centuries ago there were women that were prominent members of the press. Clementina Rind ran a printing press to support her family after her husband's death and Christiana Campbell ran a tavern that was a pretty happening place. So much, that her tavern was frequented by some very powerful men in her day.
Another fact that tends to surprise people is the contrary to the well-touted belief that WW2 was the first time women actively played a role in a war effort. While I have much respect for the "Rosie the Riveter" women (I'm proud to say that some of them were women from my own family) and the women that served in the military in one form or another during the second world war, it is a fact that women had been participating and helping with war efforts decades and even centuries prior to the second world war. We will start with World War I or the Great War.
During WW1, women not only served as nurses and other roles vital to the serving military men, but also...wait for it...worked in the factories and took on much of the jobs that the men had to leave behind. Also, look up Women's Land Army. I will add, too, that as far as being a military nurse is concerned, I think it's safe to say that it is hardly a job for the weak, whether we are talking about the fieldhouses of eras like Revolutionary War and Civil War or more modern post WW2 wars. Yet I hear many - mainly women, and a lot of whom proudly call themselves feminists - saying things like "yeah, but they were just army nurses back then." There just isn't enough facepalm for that ridiculous statement.
Now let's travel back even further to the Civil War. Pretty much the same thing. In fact, one book that I think is a great starting point for studying women's roles during the Civil War is one called, Amazing Women of the Civil War by Webb B. Garrison. Two examples of Civil War era women partaking and being active during this time are Elizabeth Thorn and Anna Ella Carroll. The story of Elizabeth Thorn (of Gettysburg) is quite a remarkable one. In short, she not only took over her husband's cemetery caretaking business while he was fighting (she was six months pregnant when she did this) but also managed to restore the graveyard mostly by herself after it was ransacked by a Confederate army. She was helped by a couple of local men who were too old to fight, but for the most part, she was responsible for restoring the very damaged property.
As for Anna Ella Carroll, she served as an adviser to President Lincoln's cabinet, along with actively participating and campaigning in the fight to end slavery (she was the author of many pamphlets covering the evils of slavery). Needles to say, she was quite active in the political arena.
The Revolutionary War also saw women playing roles in the war effort, usually as 'camp followers' (paid cooks, laundresses, nurses, etc), but also in, once again, taking over the jobs that men had to leave behind. There were also several that forged their own paths. An example would Elizabeth "Betty" Zane, who at sixteen risked her life at the battle of Fort Henry. There were also women like Penelope Barker and Nancy Morgan Hart. Barker and Hart were not only voices in rallying the people, but the latter managed to hold three British soldiers at gunpoint. There is even talk of how some women were enlisted as soldiers. Yes, disguised as men, but once discovered, many of these female soldiers were rewarded and honored for courage and bravery, sometimes during their lifetime and other times pretty shortly thereafter. Anna Maria Lane is an example.
Even prior to the Revolutionary War (and across the pond from the US), Flora MacDonald was a key figure in the Jacobite Risings in Scotland, aiding in the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie from prison to the Isle of Skye. After she was released from prison after the passing of the 1747 Act of Indemnity, she had gained many admirers for her acts of courage.
These are only a few of many examples.
When it comes to Womens History, I ask the same question that I ask when coming across the Native American history that is seldom discussed (e.g. Dr. Charles Eastman), or other occurrences like enslavement of the Romany people:
Why don't we ever hear any of this and why was this never even touched on in not only my education, but the education of many others? Why the one sided view? And why was I also not told that in addition to women not being allowed to vote, most men were not either for much of human history (now THERE'S a bit of information that isn't PC or popular)?
In fact, voting rights were a lot more complex than they are often portrayed. I also resent the fact that there was no offering of a deeper understanding for fem covert and feme sole. And why is there not a deeper understanding into the extreme complexity and nuances within the witch hunts and trials (another pet subject of mine). Much of the issues surrounding witch hunts/trials were of a political nature, business-related, among other factors. It should also be noted that many women happily participated in helping to convict other women (a lot of times out of jealousy). Men were also affected to a large extent in such hunts and trials. In several parts of the world (e.g. Russia, Normandy, Estonia, Iceland), the number of men accused and convicted of witchcraft FAR outnumbered the amount of women. Even in the early American colonies men were not exempt from being accused, convicted and executed either.
Another question I ask is why domestic tasks (yes, there's that dirty word 'domestic') and responsibilities get such a bad rap nowadays. Back in the day, running a household was serious business and all family members (including children about age 2 and up) were considered active members of the home economy. The wife's responsibilities often included keeping the books for the family business and it was not uncommon for her to be well-versed and learned in her husband's occupation (blacksmithing, printing, tinsmithing, running a tavern, etc), should something happen to render him unable to run the business. Running the home was nothing to sneeze at, yet it is continuously scoffed at now. Again, I hear much of this scoffing coming from women.
As for myself, I find things like cleaning, decluttering, cooking, etc. to be quite therapeutic and I actually have a hard time concentrating on a song, story, or other project in the middle of a mess. I quite like being able to find things when I need them and don't particularly enjoy living in a pigsty. So I scratch my head over the fact that we women are often encouraged to hate doing things that actually aid in making a more productive space to create in. Something that really does make my life easier and makes me feel closer to the natural cycle of life and the ancestors (the concept of things like "spring cleaning" is nothing new and actually an ancient practice).
I know many out there are attempting to explain this away by implying that it's the male patriarchy hiding the accomplishments of women. That might be plausible if it were not for the fact that much of my initially received narrative (and the information that others I know have received) came from other women, many of whom refer to themselves as feminists and claim to want to empower women. So to me, putting all the blame on men does not hold water. I have also heard others try to explain it away by saying things along the lines of "well we are just now coming to talk about these issues." Sorry, but I also call BS on that and I will explain further at some time in the future.
For now, I will end by saying that I can't help but be perturbed over that narrative I was given by my education and the media. I can't stand the fact that I was taught by these people to be scared and resentful, things that I see a lot of women being now. Of course, I make it a point to share the information with those I come into contact with, particularly in doing Living History. When I see and hear the surprise on the faces and in the voices of visitors, I try not to get too discouraged.
What I would like to do is go back to those (mainly women) that gave me the initial narrative, show them all the information I've been accumulating, along with the strong, independent women in my family (I will also get into the many awesome accomplishments of my grandmothers, great grandmothers, great aunts, etc in a future post) and ask them why. If you truly want women to feel empowered, why not give them ALL the history? What's with the cherrypicking and all the negativity?
It would be interesting to hear their answers.
After all, if the general public only gets to know the story of 'a woman's place being in the home' prior to the 1960s, how are we to expect them to not only stop and see the female blacksmith/tinsmith/printer in action at a historical museum, but also understand that seeing a female blacksmith is more than just an equal opportunity clause on the museum's part. It's an accurate portray of history. History that can give people an honest sense of pride. History that is being lost thanks to certain popular and PC narratives...
For more info, see my blogpost, "Why I Am Involved with Living History"
Women of the Revolutionary War: Elizabeth Zane
Anna Ella Carroll
Women in World War I
Women's Service in the Revolutionary Army
Anna Maria Lane
"Why has everyone forgotten about Male Suffrage?": The long, gruesome history of how men won the right to vote"
Amazing Women of the Civil War by Webb B. Garrison
Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
"With All the Grace of the Sex"
Gentlewomen of the Press