It’s March, ya’ll. That means it’s time to celebrate Women’s History Month. I have always been intrigued by women’s history – I love learning about women who have done outrageous acts and paved the way for our generation to have the freedoms we have today. I thought that I’d kick off the celebration of Women’s History Month by sharing one of my favorite passages from The Creation of Feminist Consciousness by Gerda Lerner.
. . . [E]ducated women have had to develop their own social networks in order for their thoughts, ideas and work to find audiences and resonance . . . the fact that women were denied knowledge of the existence of Women’s History decisively and negatively affected their intellectual development as a group . . .
This is no trivial point. I believe it marks the very essence of the different relationship men and women have to historical process. Isaac Newton, in his famous aphorism . . . “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” expressed the mode by which the thought of men was shaped into the major concepts of Western civilization. Men created written history and benefited from the transmittal of knowledge from one generation to the other, so that each great thinker could “stand on the shoulders of giants” . . . Women were denied knowledge of their history, and thus each woman had to argue as though no woman before her had ever thought or written . . . Since they could not ground their argument in the work of women before them, thinking women of each generation had to waste their time, energy, and talent on constructing their argument anew. Yet, they never abandoned the effort. Generation after generation, in the face of recurrent discontinuties, women thought their way around and out from under patriarchal thought.
I’ve often described Lerner’s book The Creation of Feminist Consciousness as my life raft. In it, Lerner says that knowledge of women’s history is “survival knowledge,” just as knowing herbal remedies and the like were survival knowledge for women back in the day. Lerner documents the struggles that women have faced throughout the centuries just to become educated. Before the mid-1800′s, women had 2 choices: be a mother or be a nun. Joining a nunnery was the only way that women could have the luxury of free time to read, study, and write. But it came at the expense of being a sexual person. And yet for many women, the only option was to lead an intellectual life.
There are many great women thinkers documented in Lerner’s book. Two of my favorites are Hildegard of Bingen and Christine de Pizan. Hildegard of Bingen lived from 1098 – 1179. She was a nun who had a great following of fellow women religious. The authenticity of her medical writings was questioned, of course, as being written by a man. Hildegard referred to herself as “ignota,” an ignorant woman, and claimed the authority to write and speak because of the visions she received from God. She broke with traditional gender roles by traveling throughout the Rhineland, preaching in big cities, visiting monasteries and distributing texts of her sermons.
Christine de Pizan is the first woman to make a living through her writing. She lived in the 14th century and primarily wrote Bible commentary. She was born in Venice and her father was the court astrologer to France’s King Charles V. Unlike most women of her time, Christine’s husband actually encouraged her to write. After her husband died, she supported herself and her family by copying and producing books, doing illustrations and writing her own books. She even received a commission to write a biography of Charles V.
I think Gerda Lerner deserves her own shout out. She was born in Austria in 1920. After the Nazis took over Austria, Gerda joined the resistance movement and eventually spent 6 weeks in jail. She and her family were able to escape Austria and the death camps and Gerda immigrated to the US in 1939. Gerda Lerner began her own higher education when she was in her 40′s, after her children were already in college. She earned her PhD from Columbia University in 1966. She is a founding member of the National Organization of Women and has played a very important role in the creation of the field of Women’s History and Women’s Studies.
I really hope that you’ll check out The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, as well as the precursor to that book, The Creation of Patriarchy. Both are challenging reads, but they’re well worth the effort. When you are able to see that patriarchy is literally a social construction – and not just in some theoretical sense – it is very liberating. Lerner shows us that patriarchy has been built up piece by piece over the centuries, and that women have been fighting against it at every step along the way. I know that I won’t see the end of patriarchy in my lifetime, but it’s not such a depressing though when you think about how much worse things have been.
Happy Women’s History Month, everybody! There’s a lot of great posts on the horizon, so I hope you’ll stayed tuned!