Herstory: Women in the Past

From May 23 until July 2, the county library and various other organizations are hosting the Library of Virginia’s “Virginia Women in History” Traveling Exhibit. This display, produced annually by the state, highlights eight women in the Commonwealth’s history who are nominated by their localities and selected by the exhibit’s curators.

We invite you to take a look at this exhibit while it tour’s the county, and to discover the history of some local women on panels produced by the archives. A special thank you to the Town of Mt. Jackson, Mt. Jackson Museum, New Market Library, the Hupps Hill Civil War Park, the Town of Woodstock, and the Shenandoah County Historical Society for hosting this exhibit as it travels around the county. For the full schedule you can go to http://tinyurl.com/jglq4zr.

 

Since this display has been at the library, quite a few visitors have asked about women’s history and how it’s studied. To begin to understand those answers, you must ask yourself the question who are some of the the most important people in our nation’s history? Who is the first person to come to mind? Is it a woman?

The reality is most people would probably name someone like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Harry Truman. Almost no one, including me, would have considered Sacajawea, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sally Hemings, or Eleanor Roosevelt.

For too long this has been the totality of our historical analysis. Few people consider the role women play shaping our past, instead we move to the more dominant, and easy to find, male figures. If we do think of women’s role in our history, we view them as the housewife, the one dimensional character who performs stereotypical tasks. We even define them in relationship to their male relatives, calling them wife of, sister to, daughter of.

All of this is done on a regular basis and often times we know better. Most of us know that women did more than raise children and clean. They helped lead their families, made independent decisions, and asserted themselves in a society that sought to restrain them. Quilts and cookbooks aren’t the only things they made. Women often produced guns, killed and preserved animals, worked in factories, farmed, and drove wagons and later trucks.

Many were also much more independent than we might think. Throughout the historic narrative, we find stories of women, married and unmarried, who lived their own lives, made their own decisions, and were what some people might call “strong, independent women.” These factors show us one thing, that the role of women in our history is much more complex, and much more vibrant than most of us think. Just looking around at this exhibit, and the women it represents, shows us that.

So why is this reality so easily overlooked? Why is our default historical figure so often a man instead of a woman? It should make sense that women should occupy at least half of our history books, if not more, but they don’t.  Women’s letters, diaries, and documents fill our archives, yet they rarely are used. What phenomenon explains all of this? 

The reality is for too long the history field chose to ignore women, and a host of other people. And, even though our society has changed the way we look at women over the past five decades, that old history is still around. Those stories about every women cooking, cleaning, and raising children still fill our textbooks, magazines, and television shows. So we hear, read, and see this old history on a regular basis, and it builds within us a narrative that excludes females, or limits them to a singular place in our history. The exhibit we are hosting and our natural curiosity helps us overcome this information deficiency.

So be sure to visit the display before it leaves Shenandoah County. Then check out a resource about women in your community. We have plenty of books you can check out at the library. You can also go online and visit the library of Virginia’s website to learn more about these women or to nominate one for next year’s exhibit.