The nature of women’s history and the reason why women are mostly absent from most historical accounts

The historiography of women essentially began in the 1960’s when research was undertaken in greater depth. Perhaps ironically this was somewhat stimulated by the fact that women were an ‘invisible’ group and remained hidden from historical accounts. In particular, before the 1960’s the only women who were investigated were exceptional women, for example Queen Elizabeth I. This is significant because she was neither a wife nor mother and perhaps portrayed more masculine characteristics. Similarly Dr. Inglis was looked at as she undertook a public role, and therefore a man’s role.

For example she established hospitals in France, Serbia and Russia. Scott correctly argues that men have often bypassed women’s history and therefore studies aim to create women as historical subjects. Male scholars, who have largely dominated the writing of history, have disregarded women as significant historical constructs because they have perceived women to have no place in society. Men considered women to have been of no great importance, assuming a silent role, rendering them absent from accounts.

It is essential to illustrate that history was formerly dominated by political and military events, in which women had limited access and whose roles were peripheral. Therefore due to male domination in the public arena women were ignored. Perhaps women were absent from history because of a lack of interest from male historians to investigate a woman’s subsidiary role. An analysis of women was thus underdeveloped and neglected, a subject, which male historians refuse to consider on its own. Perhaps the myopia of male scholars only contributes to the absence of women from historical accounts.

The cultural norm of society placed women in a subordinate position. Riley rightly suggests that women were absent from historical accounts because women were defined in history as ‘the other’. The notion of ‘the other’ differentiates women with reference to men, but not he with reference to her, unlike male subjects she is the incidental, as opposed to the male subject who is assumed to be essential. This results in lost identities because many areas of women’s lives are ignored. Whilst there are exceptions, for example Christabel Pankhurst, it must be considered that their triumphant was a result of performing a male role.

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Women history is therefore problematic because women are an ‘invisible’ group, resulting in few authentic documents and as Giles correctly argues women’s history is created by the formation of memories, through oral narrative The fact that it is told from a non-feminine point of view creates a distorted perspective. It is also important to understand that whilst the ideals of society undoubtedly dominated women’s lives, dictated by domesticity, family responsibilities and passivity, it is unjustified to assume every woman adhered to the values constructed by society, throughout history.

Whilst the nature of women’s history may accentuate women’s suppression this may be unjust. For example although an exceptional woman, Pisan’s Ditie de Jehann d’Arc was a song to celebrate Joan’s life as ‘an honour for the female sex’. Therefore it is important to examine women in the way that they viewed their own lives. Scott rightly highlights the importance of including ‘female agency in the making of history’. Women as active subjects were achieved in the history of ‘her-story’, which examines the lives of ordinary women.

Information is gathered on women, from parish registers, account books, chronicles of the feminist movement, letters written by female mothers and biographies of forgotten women. However ‘her-story’ may be undermined because it combines the valuation of women’s experiences to the positive assessment of everything women did or said resulting in a somewhat unreliable account. For example Pisan’s Quenelle des Femmes, portrayed men’s repeated slanders on women were a result of their contempt for Eve and maybe more importantly a backlash to their superior characteristics.

This also illustrates that women have been constrained throughout history. Secondly perhaps the truth is hidden by disguises, which women have created in order to survive in what appeared to be a male dominated society, for example as a fighter, victim or rebel. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly it tends to isolate women as a separate topic of history, which was exactly the opposite of the feminists aim. Deger correctly argues that it is also necessary to examine women in relation to both men and society. Scott highlights gender as a more important category of analysis than the history of ‘her-story’.

American feminists concentrated on gender in the late twentieth century as a mechanism to equate male and female situations, through illustrating the social and cultural rather than biological comparisons. It was adopted by feminists to understand the systematic subordination of women by men in our society. It is a social construct and important field in which, power is articulated. Marxist feminists analyse gender as a product of material and economic forces. The power that women held in this enterprise is constructed in terms of their economic control of the family’s finances.

For example whilst the husband is head of the household, the wife has a degree of control since she is responsible for procuring food for the family. This was not easily obtained, for example not only through the marriage bar, imposed prior to World War One, which restricted women working, but also middle class women could not hold their own property until 1870 and thus had no financial support. Similarly banks would not lend women money, as they were not recognised once married. This resulted in ‘social closure’, and working opportunities were restricted.

The marriage bar highly effected working class women and they would have had to find other mechanisms to survive. For example they often pawned household items or relied upon social networks, for example in Liverpool, in times of hardship. However this did enable the woman to exercise a degree of financial control over a large percentage of the family’s budget. The husband may exercise physical and legal power, for example married women did not achieve the franchise until 1918, but the wife exercises financial power.

Thus the family may be seen of immense importance as it provided the woman with both financial control and avenues of political comment. This indicates that the bedrock of feminist historical examination is the use of the concept of patriarchy to analyse material. It is an influential development of feminist history because it can be applied to all human relationships and societal structures as well as the structure of women’s lives. Gendered history uses of symbols, such as Eve and Mary, which have been used to portray the importance of purity.

This idea has been enhanced though the development of myths, for example light and dark, which aimed to portray innocence against corruption. Lastly normative concepts, including religious, educational, scientific, legal and political doctrine were also used in order to create a gendered history of women. This approach was developed because previous approaches to women’s history were viewed as insubstantial. This is because by adhering to the methodology of social history, conclusions were too integrationist because women’s history was created in isolation and was viewed as inferior because it was fundamentally a separatist history.

However Giles illustrates that there are problems with gender history because it categorises women and ‘polarise[s] models of sexual difference. ‘ This may result in a distorted angle attached to questions. Therefore because gender studies examine women purely in relation to men it perhaps wrongly categorises women as a uniform category. Riley validates this idea illustrating that other definitions are needed for identities to develop. This highlights the fact that gender is only one identity amongst others, for example class, race and age. To examine women’s history as gender specific marginalizes women’s experiences.

For example the impact of class had a huge impact on the lives of nineteenth and twentieth century women. Similarly the Riley illustrates that the identities of women may transform due to changing experiences in their life cycle. Undoubtedly gender is important, but many feminists depict that as an isolated category it may attribute to the absence of women from historical accounts. Perhaps this highlights the problems associated with women’s history because they cannot be satisfactorily studied in isolation or collectively, since they have both common and individual characteristics.

Solely their biological formation, their reproductive organs and sexuality cannot define women’s experiences. They could and did have the opportunity of participating in the public. This accentuates the concept of separate spheres, which remains one of the most theoretical debated subjects. This located men in the ‘public sphere’ of waged work and society, and women in the ‘private sphere’ of the home and family. Davidoff and Hall’s, Family Fortunes, which has come to be regarded as the classic account of the emergence of separate spheres, portrayed that women’s position was suppressed and narrowed as a result of the industrial revolution.

Undoubtedly the behaviour of women in the public sphere was restricted by the ideals of society, but it is short sighted to compartmentalise all women’s experiences. There are examples of women who entered the public sphere, for example the broken taboo on speaking about sex was a result of a woman and somewhat feminist inspired campaign against the Contagious Disease Acts, which were introduced in the 1860’s. It occurred in certain ports and garrisons in an attempt to address the problem of venereal disease among the military.

They had permitted the compulsory examination, detention and treatment of suspected prostitutes. The campaign led by Butler opposed state sanctioning and restrictions on women’s civil liberties, drawing close attention to the moral double standard that existed as a result of ignoring the existence of the role of the male client. The importance of this action is that after regular attacks during the 1870’s in regards to this campaign the act was suspended in 1883. This action was essential because it provided the impetus for the subsequent suffrage action.

In fact the theory of separate spheres is too constricting and as Shoemaker argues whilst their position undeniably narrowed they were involved in the public sphere. In fact what is regarded as private by some, for example middle class voluntary and charity work outside the home, is understood by others a public activity. This theory is highlighted by the debate between the optimists and pessimists. Sociologists of the 1960’s and 1970’s and many recent historians have been optimistic in the situation for women prior to the industrial revolution, for example Shorter.

They believe that the industrial revolution supported the marital family and an increase in equality between men and women. This resulted from educational opportunities, which encouraged and aided women to enter the labour market, increasing their visibility and freedom. However Marxists and Feminists, for example Clark disagree portraying that as a result o capitalism which created cheap labour, women’s position in the home was highlighted. It is possible that the two schools will never agree upon a conclusion of the position of women.

It remains questionable whether the past could and will ever be rectified. Women’s history remains premature. Roger’s highlights women’s historiography remains ambiguous because the status of women and their domination in the private arena conceals as much as it enlightens. In Thomas suggests that until more precise categories and clearer questions can be formulated the research will remain incomplete. To date women’s history is a social history, which seeks to recover the position of invisible women portraying them both as individuals and as part of a group.