Those who know me know that I am a great fan of studying history and always have been, though it wasn't until the last couple of years that I really started immersing myself and living it. It is amazing the things you will find that will surprise, delight, and appall you. For me, it has been all of the above.
Now, what does all this have to do with International Women's Day, you ask? Well, as the title of this blog post says, I feel like I've been lied to all these years. See, here's the thing. Growing up and then well into my adulthood, it was constantly drilled into my head that I should feel lucky to be a woman/female in this particular time because any and all women before me (save for a couple key figures) were allowed to do absolutely nothing, had no rights whatsoever, violating them was permitted and endorsed, and the list goes on. And for a long time, I believed it to be true.
Don't get me wrong. I like being a female in the 21st century, I am grateful for my right to vote, and I do not deny that women did face atrocities against them and many in the world still do. However, women's history, like many other histories, is not as cut and dry as many make it out to be.
Here's the thing: getting the aforementioned version of women's history made me quite the unhappy person. I was defensive, bitter, and angry without even realizing it. I resented guys, even fearing them, again without being fully aware of to what extent. That is, until I did some soul searching and started to figure it out. At first, I resorted to saying that the past is in the past and what men prior to those of my generation did is not the fault of those living in the here and now. But that was only step one and only a mere nick on a very large iceberg.
After that, I revisited my love for history and in doing so, I started to notice things. Things that were not adding up, or fully matching the version of history and belief system that I was taught for much of my life. This got the wheels turning.
A little bit later on, I started doing some historical research for my book series, along with other historical fiction I was writing and came across even more information that - once again - didn't completely coincide with what I was taught to believe. During this process came the final nail in the coffin. I actually started doing some work within the living history realm and was introduced to the female blacksmiths of yesteryear (18th century, as well as other times past).
"But how could women have been blacksmiths as far back as the 15th century and possibly even earlier??? I thought they weren't allowed to do anything!!"
Yes, my friends...that is something I hear quite a bit at the museum when discussing blacksmithing and women's occupations. I can tell that many of our visitors are expecting to hear of how women were chained to their hearths and were not allowed anyplace other than the hearth and the bed. They are also surprised when I tell them of Elizabeth Glover, who owned the first printing press in America (and during her lifetime, at least twenty-five of the printing presses that we know of were run by women...even centuries ago women were sometimes very prominent members of the press) or of other women like her (Clementina Rind, Christiana Campbell, etc). Another fact that tends to surprise people is the contrary to the well-touted belief that WW2 was the first time women actively played a role in the war effort. While I have much respect for the women who worked in the factories and served in one form or another during the second world war, I will also say that women were participating and helping with war efforts decades and even centuries prior to the second world war.
We will start with World War I or the Great War. During WW1, women not only served as nurses and other roles vital to the men serving, but also...wait for it...worked it the factories and took on much of the jobs that the men had to leave behind. Also look up Women's Land Army. Also, being a military nurse is hardly a job for the weak. Yet I hear many - mainly women, some of whom proudly call themselves feminists - saying things like "yeah, but they were just army nurses." There just isn't enough facepalm for that statement.
Now let's go back to the Civil War. Pretty much the same thing. In fact, one book that I think is a great starting point for studying women's roles during the Civil War is the book, Amazing Women of the Civil War by Webb B. Garrison. Two examples of women partaking and being active during this time is Elizabeth Thorn and Anna Ella Carroll. The story of Elizabeth Thorn (of Gettysburg) is quite a remarkable one. In short, she not only took over her husband's cemetery caretaking business while he was fighting (while six months pregnant) but also managed to restore the graveyard mostly by herself after it was ransacked by a Confederate army.
Anna Ella Carroll served as an adviser to the Lincoln cabinet and actively participated and campaigned in the fight to end slavery (she was the author of many pamphlets covering the evils of slavery). She was also very active in the political arena.
The Revolutionary War also saw women playing roles in the war effort, usually as 'camp followers' (paid cooks, laundresses, nurses, etc), but also in, once again, taking over the jobs that men had to leave behind and even forging their own paths. Elizabeth "Betty" Zane risked her life at the battle of Fort Henry. Penelope Barker, Nancy Morgan Hart were also voices in rallying the people and the latter even managed to hold three British soldiers at gunpoint. There is even talk of how some women were enlisted as soldiers. And yes, most did have to enlist disguised as a man, but many of these female soldiers were rewarded and honored for courage and bravery after being discovered, sometimes during their lives and other times pretty shortly thereafter. Anna Maria Lane is an example.
Even prior to the Revolutionary War (and across the pond from the US), Flora MacDonald was a key figure in the Jacobite Risings in Scotland, aiding in the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie from prison to the Isle of Skye. After she was released from prison after the passing of the 1747 Act of Indemnity, she had gained many admirers for her acts of courage.
These are only a few of many examples.
I ask the same question that I ask when coming across the Native American history that is seldom discussed, or other things like Romanichal slavery. Why don't we ever hear of this and why was this never even touched on in not only my education, but the education of many others? Why the one sided view? Why was I also not told that in addition to women not being allowed to vote, most men were not either for much of human history (now THERE'S a bit of information that isn't PC or popular)? In fact, voting rights were a lot more complex than they are often portrayed. I also resent the fact that there was no offering of a deeper understanding for fem covert and feme sole. And why is there not a deeper understanding into the extreme complexity and nuance within the witch hunts and trials. Much of it was political, business-related, among other factors and many women happily participated in helping to convict other women. Men were also affected and in several parts of the world (Russia, Normandy, Estonia, Iceland), the number of men accused and convicted of FAR outnumbered the amount of women.
I also ask why domestic tasks and responsibilities get such a bad rap. Back in the day, running a household was serious business and all family members (including children at about age 2 and up) were seen as active members of the home economy. The wife's responsibilities often included keeping the books for the family business. It was also not uncommon for her to learn her husband's occupation (blacksmithing, printing, tinsmithing, running a tavern, etc) in the event something happened to render him unable to run the business. Running the home was nothing to sneeze at, yet it is continuously scoffed at now. Again, I hear much of this scoffing coming from women.
I will also add that I do find things like cleaning, decluttering, cooking, etc. to be quite therapeutic and I actually have a hard time concentrating on a song, story, or other project in the middle of a mess. I quite like being able to find things when I need them and I don't particularly enjoy living in a pigsty. So I scratch my head over the fact that we women are often encouraged to hate doing such things. Meanwhile, I find that doing so makes my life easier and also makes me feel closer to the ancestors.
I know many out there are attempting to explain this by implying that it's the male patriarchy hiding the accomplishments of women. That might be plausible if it were not for the fact that much of my initially received narrative (and the information that others I know have received) came from other women, many of whom referred to themselves as feminists. So you can't totally blame the men. I have also heard others say things along the lines of "but we are just now coming to talk about these issues." Sorry, but I call BS on that (I will explain further in another post after I post the King Solomon blog post).
For now, I will end by saying that I can't help but be a little perturbed over not knowing about the female blacksmiths a lot sooner. Over not being offered direction on the history of the shield maids or of the women who served in one form or another in the wars dating centuries back. I think I would have been a much better person during the years I spent being scared and resentful. Of course, I have changed my tune with the new information that I keep learning of, and I make it a point to share this information with those I come into contact with. And when I see the surprise on their faces and hear it in their voices, I try not to get too discouraged.
What I would like to do is go back to those women who gave me that first narrative, show them all the information I've been accumulating and ask them why. If you truly want women to feel so empowered, why not give them ALL the history? The full picture? What's with the cherrypicking?
It would be interesting hearing their answers.
After all, if the general public only knows the story of 'a woman's place being in the home' prior to the 1960s, how are we to expect them to not only stop and see the female blacksmith/tinsmith/printer in action at a historical museum, but also understand that what they are seeing is more than just an equal opportunity clause on the museum's part. It's part of history. History that can give people an honest sense of pride. History that is being lost thanks to a certain popular and PC narrative...
For more info, see my blogpost, "Why I Am Involved with Living History"
Women of the Revolutionary War: Elizabeth Zane
Anna Ella Carroll
Women in World War I
Women's Service in the Revolutionary Army
Anna Maria Lane
"Why has everyone forgotten about Male Suffrage?": The long, gruesome history of how men won the right to vote"
Amazing Women of the Civil War by Webb B. Garrison
Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft
"With All the Grace of the Sex"
Gentlewomen of the Press