Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Founding Mothers

Why Write about Women's History?

[Women] have no past, no history, no religion of their own.
In the introduction to The Second Sex, published in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir begins by noting, "I hesitated a long time before writing a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially for women; and it is not new. Enough ink has flowed over the quarrel about feminism; . . . let's not talk about it anymore."

Simone de Beauvoir
But talk she does, for more than 750 pages in the newest English translation, at least in part because "the volumes of idiocies churned out over this past century do not seem to have clarified the problem." "Why is it," she asks, "that this world has always belonged to men and that only today things are beginning to change?" Among the many reasons why "this world has always belonged to men" is suggested by her observation, quoted above, that women have "no past, no history, no religion of their own."

In the sixty-five years since the publication of The Second Sex, the status of and opportunities for women seem to have changed, at least for many women in North America and Western Europe. And in those decades, countless women writers, researchers, and historians have done much to provide women with a past.

And yet, all too often women don't know much about women's past. In assigning my own students a group project in women's history, I have found these eager young women (and men) surprisingly frustrated at the assignment--beyond Hillary Clinton, Oprah, and Beyoncé, most of them are a little bit lost. (On one notable occasion not too many semesters ago, four out of six group presentations in one class were about Oprah!) A few students can move beyond the present, adding Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, and Florence Nightingale to the list. And then there is always Anne Boleyn.

This daybook is my own contribution to the project of expanding our knowledge of women's history. In moving beyond the confines of the college classroom and away from the pages of a scholarly book, I am inspired in this work by three notable "founding mothers."

The first is Christine de Pizan (c. 1364-1430), whose image is reproduced on each page of this blog. A formidable thinker and accomplished writer, Pizan produced works on a wide variety of subjects, but her most widely read book today is The Book of The City of Ladies, completed in 1405. In this defense of women, Pizan produces a remarkable history for women. The many students with whom I have read Pizan's City of Ladies over the years have found in her a lively and compelling inspiration.

Virginia Woolf
Another important founding mother is Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). In A Room of One's Own, written and published some twenty years before Beauvoir's Second Sex, Woolf anatomizes the difficulties faced by women who would become writers. "[W]hatever effect discouragement and criticism had upon their writing," she argues, "that was unimportant compared with the other difficulty which faced them . . . when they came to set their thoughts on paper--that is, that they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help." It is "useless" to look to men, their past, their history: "For we think back through our mothers if we are women."

Finally, this women's history project is dedicated to the late Gerda Lerner (1920-2013). Flipping through the pages of The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979), a book I just casually pulled off the library shelf one day, probably in 1981 or 1982, I found myself stunned at this observation: "women are and always have been at least half of humankind, and most of the time have been the majority." And then shocked by this one: "The overriding fact is that women's history is the history of the majority of humankind" (from the essay "Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges").

It's hard now to convey my surprise at Lerner's simple statements of fact--"women are and always have been half of all humankind," their history is "the history of  the majority of humankind." What seems so obvious now was not at all obvious to me at then--I had a B.A., an M.A., and by the time I found my way to Lerner's book, a Ph.D. I had just started my first teaching job at a private liberal-arts college.  I had spent my life studying literature and history, preparing for my career as an academic, and yet it had never occurred to me that I didn't know about any women writers before Jane Austen or about any women in history beyond Cleopatra, Elizabeth Tudor, and Susan B. Anthony.

When Lerner's Women and History was published, I read it with the same kind of excitement I devoured detective novels. The first volume, The Creation of Patriarchy, appeared in 1986, the second, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, in 1993. I have come back to this passage, from the second volume, again and again in the years since I first encountered it:
The long and slow advance of women intellectuals toward group consciousness and toward a liberating analysis of their situation proceeded in a spasmodic, uneven, and often repetitious manner. Marginalized from the male tradition and largely deprived of knowledge of a female tradition, individual women had to think their way out of patriarchal gender definitions and their constraining impact as though each of them were a lonely Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, reinventing civilization. . . . As we have seen, women's creations sank soundlessly into the sea, leaving barely a ripple, and succeeding generations of women were left to cover the same ground others had already covered before them. (220)
In this daybook project, I know I am happily and knowingly "cover[ing] the same ground others" that others have already covered--but not because their work "sank soundlessly into the sea." Women are no longer shipwrecked and alone; we have a history, a literature, and a tradition of our own. My aim here and now is to continue in the preservation and distribution of our past.


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