Women have no history. Apparently. Now while I’m happy to nail my colours to the feminist mast, and accept that I am naturally going to guffaw and growl at such a statement in equal measure, it is the ahistoricism of this opinion that worries me. In dismissing the historical existence of (over) half of the world’s population, you end up with bad history. Not history I disagree with, but BAD history because but it actually compromises the history of the other half of the world’s population – the men.
Not for one moment am I going to pretend that the male half of the population weren’t the most active players in the wars, the politics, the nation building, the industry, the innovations and all the other stuff of big history – the Master Narrative. But Master Narrative would have got nowhere without his Mistress. Or to put it in another way, would it have been possible to invent the steam engine without clean underpants?
In case it appears that I am reducing the role of women in history to a rather banal and fatuous contribution, let me assure them I am not. The women who followed their husbands into war, or supported their menfolk in high politics or grass roots agitation, or kept accounts as their husbands developed new and exciting kinds of industrial alchemy, or toiled beside their husband on the land or in small workshops, or did the exact same work as their male contemporaries for less remuneration merely because of biology, these women are just as active as the men and their contribution was far from banal.
What I am actually saying is that you cannot pretend that women were not there, in whatever capacity, as part of the narratives of the past that have been constructed as history. Going back to the underpants and steam engine metaphor, the men of the Lunar Society, Boulton, Watt, Priestley, Wedgwood and Darwin all had wives, who to a greater or lesser extent played a part in the ground-breaking activities of their husbands. Maybe Boulton, Priestley and Wedgwood would have become the trailblazers of the world’s first industrial revolution without Mary and Anne Boulton, Mary Priestley and Sally Wedgwood, but that is a redundant question. The fact is the women were there; they contributed.
And are we really to believe the men of history where untouched by female influence? That their mothers, nurses, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, wives, daughters, granddaughters and female acquaintances really have no impact on them at all? To argue that women are of no importance because they weren’t the major players in history implies that men existed in a hermetically sealed vacuum. That at some point they moved from the same sort of world we live in today, one of myriad and interconnected relationships and influences, and became something other than human beings. That at the time they were doing all the important stuff of history, they did so a parallel universe, where somehow they had miraculously been de-womanised.
Men and women exist in each other’s history, by virtue of existing in each other’s lives; they lived enmeshed and intertwined with each other and that doesn’t somehow magically unravel when the present moves into the past. The historian can unpick those intertwined strands and separate the histories out, but you can’t pretend either one didn’t exist. So, Master Narrative, I salute you, you have a history to tell and the right to tell it. But you and your followers should remember that your Mistress has a history also, and she’s not going anywhere.