History is, quite obviously, a story. And like any story, it at times prioritizes the experiences of certain characters over others. If we try to do too much with one story, we obstruct our own efforts. Thus, good historians are wise and fair synthesizers of data, but they accept that no one story can include everyone and everything.
And yet, some stories are more than just garden-variety incomplete. From a distance, broken things can appear whole. To the untrained eye, a sloppily-patched quilt might appear cohesive; a cracked window, smooth; and a rigged game, fair. But the quilt’s pattern is disrupted, faithlessly altered. The fractured glass is no longer capable of withstanding a storm. And the outcome of the game has already been decided.
Similarly, history is compromised by sloppy, biased storytelling that favors the experiences and contributions of men. In other words, the game is rigged.
There is a difference between a story that doesn’t include everyone and everything and a history that excludes entire people groups. When history omits the experiences of women, it’s not because historians have been wise and fair synthesizers of data.
Men dominate the halls of history not because they have earned the spotlight more than women, but because they have also sought to dominate women.
Women’s stories threaten a male-centric narrative. Patriarchy doesn’t try to erase women because we have been absent or idle. Patriarchy tries to erase women because it judges our stories, experiences, and contributions as less vital than those of men.
It’s important to understand exactly how patriarchy tries to erase women, so we can become deeper listeners as well as more faithful storytellers. After all, if you know how the referee is rigging the match, you can avoid their traps and score a few points in the process.
1. Patriarchy Attacks Women’s Relevance
Patriarchy tries to erase women from history by attacking their relevance to the global story. If women are not proven witnesses to and participants in the world’s story, then it make sense to omit us in the telling.
In other words, if history denies that women ever showed up to the party, our ongoing marginalization is justified. It’s no accident that patriarchy consistently locates women off-site. The gatekeepers omit women because they don’t want to admit that we showed up, and that our presence altered the story.
2. Patriarchy Minimizes Women’s Contributions
I was recently reading an article about gender representation in school curriculum. The author of the article randomly selected a fifth grade US history textbook for analysis. She found that only twenty-six of the 185 “key people” listed were women.
Patriarchy reduces women to supporting characters. But women have bent the arc of history with their hands since the beginning of time. We’ve been inventing, building, creating, and producing for ages. And yet, history treats our contributions as afterthoughts.
But we aren’t reduced to supporting characters because we don’t warrant a starring role. No, patriarchy has long sought to subdue our genius.
3. Patriarchy Pigeonholes Women
It’s true that women have been limited to the domestic sphere for much of history. And it’s important to never dismiss the courageous vocations of mother and wife. However, women were not wives and mothers only. Women are and have been inventors, warriors, strategists, doctors, generals, educators, scholars, theologians, activists, and preachers.
Women invented Kevlar, central and solar heating, syringes, the smallpox vaccine, submarine telescopes, and so much more! A woman wrote the first computer program (Ada Lovelace) and another woman wrote the first business software program (Grace Hopper). And some beer historians believe that you have ancient Mesopotamian women to thank if you enjoy a nice cold brew in the summertime.
And yet, history rarely treats women as agents of change and progress because the agency of women is a threat to patriarchy.
4. Patriarchy Hyper-Focuses on Female Sexuality
Traditionally, women have been judged as valuable or valueless based on what we could offer to men. Yes, I’m talking about sex. History is fascinated by female sexuality—and many historical figures like Augustine, Jerome, and Tertullian dwelt obsessively on a false narrative of female promiscuity.
Christians today often reduce women to the flawed dichotomy of promiscuous or pure. And patriarchy throughout history was just as preoccupied with what women have done with their bodies, or in many cases, what has been done to their bodies. And all of this toxic, patriarchal interest in female sexuality has come at the expense of celebrating women’s intellectual capacity.
Women have been thinking critically about God for just as long as men, yet many church fathers labelled women simple, shallow, and intellectually deficient. Indeed, Martin Luther said: “No gown worse becomes a woman than the desire to be wise.”
Patriarchy often paints women as inconstant, fleeting, changeable creatures. These stereotypes have aided historical gatekeepers in shutting out our intellectual and theological contributions. Still, women have made their mark as great thinkers and brilliant strategists throughout history.
The lives and work of Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Deborah, Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sojourner Truth, Virginia Woolf, Marie Curie, Flannery O’Conner, Ida B. Wells, Jane Austen, Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou, and Simone de Beauvoir suggest that women aren’t as moveable as patriarchy would like.
The historical gatekeepers have been rigging the game for a long time. Nevertheless, we’ve persisted. Nevertheless, we always will.