Sunday, October 24, 2004

Mention of Cleopatra in an Online Article About Sexism in History and Literature

History shouldn't be gender-biasedSAM MUSTAFAGraduate Student, History
I ran into a graduate student colleague yesterday. As we chatted about various things, I noticed a poster for a series of events celebrating March as Women's History Month. Or, as the poster proclaimed,"Wymyn's Herstory." I remarked that I found the misspellings a bit strange.
"It's to show that our experience as women is not merely derivative of men," my friend explained.
"Who said it was merely derivative?" I asked.
"It's everywhere," she said,"from Eve being made from Adam's rib, to the word 'woman' just being a man with a womb, to history being his-story. It's time to tell her-story for a change."
"Oh, come on, the word history doesn't mean his-story," I said. "It's from the French histoire, which means 'story.' It's a feminine noun, by the way. It's feminine in Spanish, German and Russian, too -- it just means 'story' or 'tale.'"
"But that's the way it's always been used," she said. "History has always been his-tory. Sure, historians talk about people like Catherine the Great or Cleopatra, but only because these women lived up to men's standards, and thus were considered worthy of being included with all the men. That's an inherently sexist perspective. The story of women hasn't been told as a story worthy in its own right."
"Well, you're probably right about that," I said. "But now, to fight sexism, you're going to tell the story of only one gender? Didn't you just say that kind of thinking was the root of the whole problem?"
I am so weary and depressed by intellectual balkanization. Why can't history be gender-unified: the story of all humans? Must we break it up arbitrarily by sex? The Wymyn's Herstory people pluck men out of the picture like a child separating peas from carrots. This is progress? The next step in this line of thinking is to teach a course in "Men's History" -- Peter the Great, but not Catherine. We could offer a semester of each, and via this schizophrenic "equality," students could learn the whole story: one angry faction at a time.
Does the exclusion of men serve women any better than the exclusion of women has served men in the past? A flyer on the same bulletin board proclaimed a seminar entitled, "What's It Like To Be A Woman In Academia?" It said that "All women faculty, staff and students are encouraged to attend." Men, I gather, are not invited?
One of the events advertised by the Wymyn's Herstory poster is a visit by Sister Helen Prejean, who at the request of the Issues Committee, will speak about capital punishment. Obviously this is an issue which has great relevance to men, since over 99 percent of all those executed in America are male. Not only is Sister Helen's visit unrelated to Women's History, I am somewhat skeptical of the use of a Catholic nun as a progressive role model for "wymyn." (Has anyone considered her stance on contraception, abortion or the right of women to become priests?) But worst of all, to make an issue of Sister Helen's gender, to claim that her speech on capital punishment is a women's issue merely because she is a woman-- these are sexist concepts. Take Sister Helen out of the Wymyn's Herstory box; she is simply a human being, and her ideas are of value to us all.
No one, I hope, denies that women have been left out of the traditional view of history. The solution, however, is to correct his omission, not to erect a separate edifice which commits the same narrow-minded exclusion of half the human race. I want to see absorption of women's history into the whole human story. I want a history of people; their ideas and deeds, uncluttered by value judgments based on their gender. To celebrate Women's History Month, let's fight sexism by doing something more than simply reversing its polarity.

Taken from


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