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Women’s stories in history and heritage

Women’s stories in history and heritage

Feminism has undergone a very hectic journey throughout its life so far, from the initial surge and popularity following the suffragette movement, to radical feminism, and so called men-haters, to falling off the radar at the turn of the millennium. However, with so much new talk and action surrounding the topic of gender equality, which can be seen in events such as the #museumweek focus on women, I wonder whether the term feminism, and the feminist movement itself, is becoming popular again?

As Caroline Dinenage, the Minister for Women, Equalities and Family Justice so eloquently put

“This is, beyond doubt, a critical time for gender equality.”

Statement by Caroline Dinenage (Government Equalities Office 2016).

Progress has been made with a third of MPs now being female, the lowest ever gender pay gap on record was achieved this year (Government Equalities Office 2016), and women’s representation on the boards of the biggest companies has more than doubled since 2011 (Catalyst 2016).

But is this enough yet? I would argue no.

The United Kingdom ranked 26th out of 142 countries on the Gender Gap Index for the relative gaps between men and women in health, education, economy and politics in 2014, (Government Equalities Office 2016) and the Catalyst Census of this year also recorded that women’s share of board seats at European stock index companies was at just 22.8% (Catalyst 2016).

Gender parity is therefore still an issue in modern society, although the campaign for equal rights appears to be gaining new ground and popularity in recent years. We can now turn to what this has to do with the presentation of women in heritage and therefore in history more broadly. Enter English Heritage…

“In a recent survey we found that 40% of people thought that women did not impact history as much as men.” (English Heritage, 2016a)

It begs the question as to why this might be. Are they just not visible within the historical narratives that we tell in our society, both at school but also on television, in films and the media more generally? Or is it more about how we portray these women – perhaps they aren’t being displayed as influential or worthy of remembering? Let’s just explore this a little.

One argument for the difference in gender equality in society more broadly has been put forward by MP Jo Swinson in 2014.

“The continued location of feminine identity with physical appearance, the overwhelming scrutiny and policing of women in society and the media, alongside the continued existence of ‘hypermasculinity’…are prevailing barriers for women and girls – and indeed men and boys – that must be challenged once and for all.” (Government Equalities Office 2014)

I would argue that the way we present women within heritage and history more broadly only aggravates this issue further – we are presenting women again as an object, obsessing over looks and appearance, such as whether or not they were ‘a beauty’, as opposed to what they achieved in their lives. In order to demonstrate this issue, if we turn to English Heritage’s ‘Women in History Month’ campaign that ran throughout March 2016 to coincide with International Women’s Day, we can see that even here, a campaign put forward to promote successful and powerful women, there is still an obsession with looks.

As part of this month, English Heritage interviewed historian Bettany Hughes about why women were written out of history. Within this interview she says…

“Often women aren’t allowed to be characters in history, they have to be stereotypes. Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher, she was incredibly good at maths; she wasn’t much of a looker. But when we think of her, we think: big breasted seductress…” (English Heritage 2016b)

Even here, where the discussion is all about why women were written out of history, it is still seen as important to talk about a woman’s looks, even if only just to make a point in this case – why should it matter whether she was a looker or not? The important point here, surely, is that Cleopatra has been portrayed as a big breasted seductress, despite the fact that what made her truly successful and influential, was her intellect, regardless of whether she was pretty or not!

I argue that this is one of the issues, and part of the cause, for gender inequality today. History portrays women as objects and focuses on their image and looks, we don’t portray them as leaders as powerful and successful in their own right in the past. This therefore affects what we think of women today. We don’t see them in leadership positions and successful in their own right in the past, so why should we see them as that today? There is no tradition of it, so less claim to it today.

Therefore this is an important issue in heritage, as the way we portray women at historical sites could greatly affect how the public see women in the past, and thus how we see women today.

Smith (2010) demonstrates how when proposing changes to an exhibition on eighteenth century individuals by adding a woman’s story, the response was that that was an admirable aim, but there were no artefacts available pertaining to women. However, this collection actually contained numerous artefacts that would be part of women’s lives, such as period rooms and furnishings, pots, pans, toys, spinning wheels, costumes, jewellery, and so on. She therefore argues that this demonstrates a common blindness

“shared among many museum professionals and among many visitors… who are a product of an invidiously gendered society that has been blind to women and their lives” (Smith 2010, 67-68).

Finally, the last theme I want to tease out of the literature is that when women’s history, or women themselves, do get recognition, it is often put in special sections or separate institutions, so that women’s history is separated from just the general narrative of history. Smith (2008) is one of the few scholars that does write about gender and heritage, and points out that when women’s history is published or told within heritage sites, it is often only in special and temporary exhibitions.

Together these issues serve to separate women’s history, making it a special interest topic, further strengthening the notion that women’s stories are less worthy of remembrance. These stories impact upon our collective knowledge of our shared past, lessening the perceived contributions made by women in the past. Initiatives such as #WomenMW is a good place to start discussing, and coming together to overcome these issues.

All facts and figures true as of 2016, when this topic was academically researched.

Helen Simmons, Project Manager

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