Same Old Story: History and Herstory

History is a facet of reality for which I feel particular sympathy.  The sheer amount of use, abuse, and misrepresentation undergone by human history is staggering.  It seems as though anyone with any ideology seeks to impose their value judgments on history before examining it, thereby distorting our view of it.

One of the common lenses through which we view history is that of gender.  For a person who favors traditional patriarchal societies, history is the story of men being powerful and dominant achievers and women being submissive cultivators of family life.  For them, history shows how men being in charge leads to more effective survival strategies, great achievement, and technological innovation.  For those who take an even stronger view, history shows the inherent superiority of men, an attitude just as present in ancient Greece as it was in the East and West during the past couple of centuries.  After all, the fact that men held the vast majority of the positions of political authority is clear evidence of male superiority, right?  We can probably just ignore the rates of violence and death among human populations (much of which was probably not even economically beneficial or necessary for survival) and instead focus on resting on our laurels.  We can safely say that men are the ones doing all the good work and women the ones who are the dumb sex objects we only need around for reproduction and a bit of labor here and there.

But along comes feminism, a body of theories generally opposed to patriarchy, and we get a different view of history.  Rather than history being the story of male achievement in the face of overwhelming odds and many exciting difficulties being overcome, history is viewed as the story of women being oppressed by men, of men holding almost all the power and engaging in violence and intimidation to keep women from gaining access to it.  For them, history is the story of how women were denied equal access to education, treated as baby factories, and regarded as second-class citizens all the while ignoring or downplaying the very real talents and value which women bring to human society.  After all, the fact that men held the vast majority of the positions of political authority is clear evidence of male oppression, right?  We can probably just ignore how often women made the smart choice to enjoy the relative safety of their roles in patriarchal societies so often earned by the men who were willing to suffer and die to secure the comfort of their wives and children.  We can safely say that it is women who exemplify moral behavior and that it is men who exemplify immoral behavior and are really only necessary for reproduction and maybe a bit of labor here and there.

The interesting thing about the traditional patriarchal view of history and the feminist view of history is that both tell the same story of male power and influence alongside female powerlessness and lack of influence.  The primary difference seems to be that the former perspective renders that history in a very positive light which sees patriarchy as morally correct and beneficial to human society, whereas the latter perspective renders that history in a very negative light and sees patriarchy as a penultimate moral ill and utterly maleficent to human society.

I find both of these views to be rather unbalanced and unfair to both women and men throughout history.  Very few of the men I have ever met from any of the many cultural and religious backgrounds I had access to growing up in a very multicultural environment thought that they truly had the power in their household, even when they came from a very traditional patriarchal environment.  Very few of the women I have ever talked to or observed from traditional patriarchal environments gave evidence of being powerless.  In fact, they quite often seemed to have far greater influence over the running of the household and the rearing of children than the men did.  Often the man would jokingly point out that it was his wife who was truly in charge and he just “brought home the bacon,” and the woman would joke that it was she who was truly in charge and her husband just “brought home the bacon.”  None of this is to deny that women and men have suffered and died under cruel circumstances at the hands of or for the sake of the other.  None of this is to deny that men and women exhibit certain behavioral differences.  But what was I to make of this experience which contradicted patriarchal and feminist versions of history?

I understandably went looking for a less biased (I say less because an absence of bias is unrealistic) and more complex account of human history and behavior.  In anthropology and archaeology and evolutionary psychology and sociology I found less bias and more complexity.  I found a story of human history in which both men and women played key roles, a story which accounted for the differing biological realities faced by men and women and the resulting uniqueness of the survival pressures on men and women as well as their differing responses to those survival pressures under various conditions.  I found a story which presented human social structures in a way that did not necessarily defame men and women inaccurately and cast them as inherently flawed in contrast to the inherent goodness of the other sex.  Rather, the story made sense of why role differentiation occurred in patriarchal and matriarchal social groups.  In short, these disciplines provided me with a framework for understanding human history and behavior without imposing a sexist narrative on it.  It was not just the same old story.

I suppose that not everyone would want to abandon the same old story.  It is after all a compelling narrative either way and can certainly help us to see our sex in a positive light so long as we are willing to cast our fellow human beings into a mold which often does not fit them and frequently judge them guilty for the bad behavior of others.  I sincerely hope that as we mature as a species we can begin to abandon the same old story in light of its harmfulness and inaccuracy.  I sincerely hope that we can view each other more charitably and engage in less scapegoating.  Unfortunately, the story of human history suggests that we will not give up our boys versus girls blame game any time soon.  I suggest that we could at least give it a try and hope that future generations will be less likely to buy into the same old story and more likely to treat each other with mutual love and respect for men, women, and folks who don’t fit neatly into either category.

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9 Responses to Same Old Story: History and Herstory

  1. Erika_Steele says:

    I don’t think the problem is that people do not want to abandon the same old story, they want the story to be simple. They don’t want to think; especially not outside of the lens through which they view the world. It would be great if we really could understand the social and biological evolution of the human race without it having to be history or herstory.

  2. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @Erika_Steele – That would be great indeed.  I actually kept trying to find a way of expressing the concept of history without gendering it, but everything I could think of was too unwieldy.I agree that we want the story to be simple.  We like our understanding of reality in bite-size portions.  Chewing for a long time on large pieces of reality is not most folks’ idea of a good time.  I also think that we as a species really like to blame someone or something, and that’s where holding on to those narratives is so emotionally rewarding for proponents of patriarchy, feminists, and anti-feminists.

  3. Any story is told through the narrator, regardless of how unbiased they try to be. I think with the information age, the internet, and all of the recorded voices, we will see much different faces on history writing 🙂

  4. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @BoulderChristina – Indeed.  Perhaps we bloggers will be one of the sources of historical evidence of our time.  I shudder to think what will be concluded by later generations. 

  5. galadrial says:

    Ah…but there HAVE been women who were vital to history…Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth 1, Boudicca—even Zenobia…and while they were exceptional, they still existed. Yet very little is actually known of them, save legend.But since you mention “history”, I have to add something. I am fascinated by the Civil War…but most people only know the “version” taught in public school, which I find highly sanitized, and simplified. I was doing research on Pea Patch Island at one point and ILL’d some books that were published in pre-Civil Rights Mississippi, on the topic of the war. The names and dates were the same…but DAMN…the view was utterly different. Not even incorrect…just a very different interpretation of the same data. I found it fascinating, because it explained things I never considered before…and forced me to look harder at “historical fact”. I cut my teeth on Bruce Caton, and he is an excellent primer…but Sharra is far more detailed, and interesting. But some of those “Dixie Scholars” also had a very different spin on our beloved mythology about the War. They say history is often penned by the victors…but only now do we have the ability to read the views from the other end…provided we are willing to give them a moment.

  6. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @galadrial – As someone who was born in a border state and grew up in the South and is now living up north of the Mason-Dixon line, I know exactly what you mean about there being two sides to the story of the Civil War.  It really is quite fascinating how different two or more perspectives on the same data can be.  I think that having heard both sides of the same story gives me more sympathy for both and I tend to be less judgmental overall.I tend to agree with you that there have been women who were vital to history.  And I’d even suggest that every woman who gave birth to and/or raised and/or taught children played an absolutely vital role in human history.  I think every woman who built relationships with others and learned and grew in herself was absolutely vital to the course of human history.  Political authority may get the spotlight quite often, but it is the people from whom political leaders arise, and the quality of those leaders often has much to do with their mothers and fathers and mentors and aunts and uncles and grandmothers and grandfathers.  We only reach so high as we do by standing on the shoulders of giants with the will and skills provided us by others to climb to new heights.

  7. galadrial says:

    @Nous_Apeiron – And I agree with you on that.But I am now living in New England, in a town that spans back 370 years…there are two small burying grounds in walking distance, in the fall I went through them, looking at the stones. I was well aware of maternal death rates over a hundred years ago. one pregnancy in three ended in the death of the mother, the infant, or both. So it wasn’t unusual to have a family plot  with one man, many children…and several wives. What shocked me was that the custom of the day did not NAME the wives.Their “stones” had initials carved on them…not even dates. Very rarely, the last wife got a name…but it wasn’t considered “important”.It’s one of those gender issues that disturbs me. A society that couldn’t give women their names in death wasn’t going to be interested in their “history”. found this lady fascinating—but a real effort was made to eliminate all mention of her name and reign after her death…the punishment of being erased is VERY Egyptian…but they couldn’t get all of it, thank goodness!

  8. AmorVomnia7 says:

    Love this post.Very well said.

  9. Nous_Apeiron says:

    @galadrial – It really is both tragic and amazing how much of the human story we have lost or almost lost.  I’m glad that not everything about Hatshepsut was lost.@AmorVomnia7 – Thanks!

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