I wonder how many women remember when they first realized they were “less than” men, that society would treat them differently.
My mom was a second-wave feminist, and I got most of my outrage second-hand from her. I remember the first time I felt outrage was when I was outlining my plans to be a lawyer after my fourth-grade mock trial. At the time my mom had explained to me, as gently as possible, that I would never be paid as much as a male lawyer.
The next place it happened was the place it tends to happen often: school. I do not mean its stringently gendered dress code, though that is a fairly substantial problem. I mean the things we learned in class, particularly in history class. Our curriculum has been criticized in recent years for being too Western-centric, thus denying or glossing over America’s culpability in many respects: genocide of the Native Americans, the true horrors of slavery, Japanese internment camps, our role in World War II, our deviation from discussing Dr. King’s more radical socialist ideas, and the Reagan administration’s action (or lack thereof) towards the AIDS crisis, to name a few. These intentional blind spots indeed represent the failings of our education system, but what I remember most vividly from my earliest days of schooling is my having to absorb, over and over again, the terrible things that happened to women over the course of history.
We jumped abruptly from patriarchal society to patriarchal society; at my school, we always dedicated a significant amount of time to Athens, Greece, where women were lauded for bearing the more “feminine” traits of quietness and subservience. When we focused on Sparta, we reviewed a sentence or two on how women were treated better there than in other city states at the time. Meanwhile, our teachers chose to spend the rest of class emphasizing the depravity of that war-obsessed society. They never went into more nuanced specifics like how women trained and fought alongside the men, or how women only got their names inscribed on their graves if they died in childbirth, while men did if they died in battle (therefore representing how the Spartans equated childbirth with dying in battle.) Divorce also was allowed in this society, with women entitled to their share of the assets.
Of course, many might argue that essentially all societies in ancient history were patriarchal. However, this is not true, either. There are plenty of egalitarian or even matriarchal societies to choose from that are brushed over in the curriculum. In traditional Jewish cultures, Judaism is passed through the maternal line, not the paternal, but the only thing usually taught about Jewish culture in class is the Holocaust. Many Native American tribes had an equal place for women, but they are usually presented as some kind of hive-minded society rather than as vastly different tribes. There are Islamic cultures where women did not take the last names of their husbands in order to signify that they were not their property, and they also enjoyed many rights that women in Christian areas did not. Plenty of societies and cultures that were considered “primitive” had more progressive ideas about gender norms that would have contrasted greatly with Europe’s own.
It is very damaging for young women to hear about how our ancestors have been mistreated for thousands of years, over and over again every year in a class that meets five days a week, thirty weeks out of the year. We hear about how King Henry had his wives killed or divorced, how women were raped and brutalized and taken as prisoners for sexual gratification during every war, how we never had any political or social power. And on the opposite end, how did the young men in class feel, hearing about all this power and violence that had been theirs for centuries, with only a few plausibly easily-subjugated female peers standing in the way of their reclaiming it?
Even in college, which by all accounts gives a much more nuanced and objective version of history, I cannot count the number of times my courses involved texts written by men who were raging sexists. Why professors, male and female alike, still turn to Freud so often baffles me. Yes, he was instrumental in creating modern therapy and psychoanalysis, but the much darker side of him, where he ignored his (mostly female) patients’ accounts of the abuse they received from their fathers and husbands, is always conveniently brushed over. Freud’s similarly problematic counterparts and their reputations are so well-preserved that even the slightest criticism of them is often met with the thinking that he invented [insert theory here], so why does all of that matter? Yeah, why does all that matter? Who cares about his treatment of women when he was so singularly smart? As Hannah Gadsby says in her Netflix special Nanette when discussing Picasso’s virulent misogyny: “Pablo Picasso. I hate him, but you’re not allowed to. I hate him. But you can’t. Cubism. And if you ruin… cubism, then civilization as we know it will crumble. Cubism. Aren’t we grateful… in this room… that we live in a post-cubism world?”
Even the achievements of women are dismissed in most history curriculums. We still insist that Watson and Crick discovered DNA, when what they really discovered were Rosalind Franklin’s notes. Marie Curie died of radiation poisoning, only to be relegated as some “assistant” to her husband Pierre. Agatha Christie sold the same number of books as Shakespeare did, yet she is not taken as seriously by literature professors. Teachers often talk about how deeply tragic it is that women were barred from education, because who knows what we could have achieved? Except we did achieve, even with all of the aforementioned barriers, be it in in math, science, literature; in short, in history. The real tragedy is how diminished and ignored all of those achievements are by society.
When I was in a Catholic all-girls high school, my classmates and I learned about the Old Testament and ancient Jewish culture in our religion course. Moreover, we learned that women were essentially second-class citizens within this cultural framework. I had imagine that Jewish people would balk at such an interpretation of their gender politics, but what I remember the most from that section is a quiz question we had on the Old Testament that said, “Women are: superior/inferior.” I had to circle the word inferior to get the question right. That little moment might just sum up what history had been teaching me my entire life.
I am not suggesting we gloss over historical sexism just because it makes me uncomfortable and sad to hear about it. But we at the same time do not have to dedicate so much time to wallowing in it, and we can actually give societies with different gender roles equal time and review. Teachers could say something along the lines of, “Hey, wasn’t that fucked up? Let’s make sure that never happens again. But it wasn’t necessarily the only norm in history, and it should never be. And look at what women did anyway, we weren’t sitting on our hands until major protests started in the 60s.”
History is not against us, ladies; we have persevered no matter the conditions. And the future is looking bright.
Bethany Sattur is a Copy Editor for The Rational Creature.