The Controversy of Women’s History

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from For Beginners

As we enter the third week of Women’s History month, we’re taking a look at the decline of women representatives in Congress. For the first time in thirty years the number of women representing American citizens fell in the 112th Congress. After the November 2010 elections, women holding seats in both the House and the Senate went from 93 seats to 90. The overall percentage fell by 17%, lowering the standings of the United States to 73rd in the world for female representation in government leadership. Currently the United States is tied with Turkmenistan.

In the following lively interview, Women’s History For Beginners author Bonnie J. Morris, Ph.D. discusses the roles of women in today’s society and common misconceptions of the study of women.

from For Beginners

 


 

As we enter the third week of Women’s History month, we’re taking a look at the decline of women representatives in Congress. For the first time in thirty years the number of women representing American citizens fell in the 112th Congress. After the November 2010 elections, women holding seats in both the House and the Senate went from 93 seats to 90. The overall percentage fell by 17%, lowering the standings of the United States to 73rd in the world for female representation in government leadership. Currently the United States is tied with Turkmenistan.

With the diluted presence of women in representative seats, issues concerning the female gender have been handled quite carelessly. A recent example is a bill that was proposed by Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO) which would allow not only religious groups, but any employer with moral objections to opt out of providing coverage for contraceptives required by the 2010 health care law. Though the bill was defeated in the Senate with a 51 to 48 vote largely through party lines, it failed to recognize the woman’s voice. As Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) put it: “If the Senate was 83 women and 17 men instead of the other way around, the Blunt Amendment would never have made it to the Senate floor.”

Women’s issues will continue to be minimalized as female representatives continue declining as with the 112th Congress. A woman will always know what is best for a woman.

Women’s History For Beginners by Bonnie J. Morris, Ph.D. offers a lively, revealing, and provocative overview of this important (and controversial) academic field. Who are the great women of history, and why don’t we know more about them? You don’t need to be a scholar to notice that men’s history dominates everything we learn in school; yet a quick tour of the past reveals dynamic female role models at every turn. More than an introduction to women’s roles and contributions across time, it also examines the ways that women in all societies have been ruled by men, according to law and custom. In the following lively interview we discuss the roles of women in today’s society and common misconceptions of the study of women.

 

 

What is so controversial about women’s history?

Why is women’s history controversial? Good question! We don’t find “men’s history” controversial–we assume it’s normal. By extension, studying women is an “extra” in school…an afterthought…overlooked, absent, trivialized. Some critics assume that simply being interested in the female experience makes one anti-male; or, by extension, to care about women makes you gay. These are not serious approaches to how, and what, women have contributed to world history, but a good retort is: what’s more patriotic or family-focused than admiring your foremothers?  More seriously, much of what happens to women is about the body–where oppression and violence, as well as sexuality, are acted out ON women. It’s hard not to address the history of injustices, which makes people uncomfortable.

Will you give your own definition of feminism? Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I am indeed a proud, bold feminist activist. Feminism is the belief (which must be accompanied by action) that women deserve equal rights and opportunities–access to schooling, athletic participation, fair wages and job opportunity, freedom from assault, the right to choose one’s partner and one’s method of contraception. In very few countries/cultures have women achieved full equality in law and society.

Why focus so much on women’s rights rather than universal rights?

I focus on women’s rights BECAUSE, too often, women are not included in “human rights.” Too many world leaders assert that men deserve full political freedom and liberty but that women can be held back due to cultural and religious “values.” Women must be granted full participation at every level of society. Yep, that includes pro sports, the priesthood, the Supreme Court. We have appalling lack of female power/representation in government and the worst culprits in oppressing women are fundamentalist religious regimes of every faith.

What are your thoughts on royal girls given equal chance to the British crown?

Should females aspire to the crown? Sure, but being a queen in any monarchy is no guarantee of a pro-woman stance. For instance, in my Western Civilization class we look at how Queen Isabella fostered terror and suffering via the Inquisition, expelling Jews and Muslims from Spain. So many women suffered under her rule, or were burned at the stake!

Do you believe Judith Sargent Murray would be proud of today’s women as a whole?

Judith Sargent Murray, who was an advocate of female education in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, would be delighted to see that women actually outnumber men at many U.S. colleges today, and, I believe, would relish Title IX law, which bans sex discrimination at federally funded schools. She might major in women’s studies!

In your opinion, who is the most influential woman in history?

The most influential woman in history? It is not possible to choose ONE. That is a matter of opinion varying in every culture, nation and creed; for there are outstanding heroines, goddesses, martyrs and leaders across time. On the cover of my book I took care to choose sample representations of influential women: Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii, to represent women as beloved leaders (and advocates of self-determination for indigenous peoples); Sojourner Truth, who raised questions about the intersecting rights and identities of black women in America; a suffragist, to symbolize the importance of women’s political involvement as citizens; the Venus of Willendorf, who represents mothers and female spiritual power; and Rosie the Riveter, to symbolize who women have worked–at unfair wages–to support family and country, or as industrial inventors. In the U.S. I believe Rosa Parks is a very influential symbol, though there were many other women in the civil rights movement. Certainly Susan B. Anthony worked tirelessly to gain the vote; and then there’s a more global view of how we each had “influential women” in our personal histories. As a Jewish woman and also a lesbian scholar, my identity has been historically influenced by everyone–from Pharaoh’s daughter, who rescued Moses, to Sappho, whose life story gave us the word “Lesbian” in the West. But an Irish feminist might name the Virgin Mary and Nell McCafferty as influential; an athlete, Billie Jean King; and women from Viet Nam, or Brazil, or Samoa, or the Cherokee Nation, would all name different heroines.

 

What is your reaction to the claim that feminism is causing reverse-sexism in today’s culture?

Feminism is not reverse sexism. It is an unfinished movement to grant women equal access. It HAS meant some men have had to share what was once entirely theirs (athletic budgets, Ivy League schools, the Senate.) Hence some men perceive equality as a loss… or, if women get to do what was once male-only, it devalues that activity by feminizing it…

What would have to change in order to have true equality between sexes?

To attain true equality, first we need to end rape and domestic assault. Too many women live in fear in their own homes, or, right now, are suffering the impact of rape as a tool of war, throughout the world. Religion can empower women, but organized religion and its protected institutions are chief culprits in permitting men complete power over women in some communities; thus, I support separation of church and state. Look at what’s going on now with the debate over contraception for American women–in 2012! I also think schools MUST educate girls and women in the developing world, this history is of course why for so long men have interpreted law–women were banned from studying or interpreting Scripture or other legal texts which governed their bodies.

Bonnie J. Morris earned her Ph.D in women’s history from the State University of New York at Binghamton. She was also Harvard Divinity Schools’ first graduate seminar on Hasidic women in America and later published her doctoral dissertation as Lubavitcher Women in America. She has also taught Women’s Studies at both George Washington University and Georgetown since 1994.

For Beginners LLC is the Danbury, Connecticut-based company behind the introductory series For Beginners, a graphic documentary line of books dedicated to making complex topics accessible to all readers.

 


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