One of my best friends doesn’t have much interest in history. In our twenty years of friendship, we’ve good-naturedly teased each other about being the history nerd and the science geek. But she has also made me ask the question: why does history matter? And in the context of Women’s History Month in particular, why does women’s history matter?
We all know the cliché that those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. But as we see women making enormous strides in the last century, the cliché may not seem very true: why focus on the oppression of the past, on women whose lives were constrained by patriarchal beliefs, when we have so many inspiring examples of women winning the right to vote, shattering glass ceilings, running Fortune 500 companies, and leading huge ministries?
I’m all for stories of inspiring women. As my children grow, my library expands with biographies of women like Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt. And since my littles are still in elementary school, I do focus more on women’s achievements than on the cultural expectations and patriarchal structures they worked to overcome, whether we’re talking about Susan B. Anthony or Paul’s co-worker Priscilla.
But in focusing on women’s achievements only and ignoring the obstacles they faced, we not only obscure the full extent of their achievements but we also diminish the full impact of patriarchy. Narrowing our focus to women who broke out of cultural expectations cuts out the many women whose achievements were less flashy, overshadowed by men’s, or limited by social norms. And celebrating only a handful of women perpetuates the idea that patriarchy hasn’t caused that much damage, since we’re ignoring the stories of the women who actually were stymied by notions of proper activities and spheres for women.
Especially as Christians, we believe that women, just like men, are created in the image of God. Their stories, their achievements, and their pain are just as valuable to God as men’s. Telling the stories of women—the full stories, not just the inspirational parts—is a way to honor them. And in telling women’s stories, both failures and triumphs, we see how patriarchy and cultural expectations around womanhood (and manhood) cause damage. Women’s history matters because it’s human history, because it reveals the influence of patriarchy, and because it’s a way to honor our foremothers in the faith.
1. Women’s history is human history.
Because history is by and large written by the victors, history books, archives, and museums tend to reflect their creators’ assumptions about whose history is valuable. For much of the Western world, this means that the perspectives and stories of wealthy white men dominate our histories.
I’m not trying to diminish the importance of the men we study and memorialize. Obviously, Martin Luther won’t fade from history textbooks and theologians won’t stop studying Augustine. But we can’t fully understand the Reformation without understanding how Luther’s theologies affected women. And we gain a better understanding of Augustine when we consider how his relationships with his mother and his concubine shaped his theology.
Women’s history isn’t simply a subcategory, interesting but secondary to “real” history. Women’s history is human history. We can’t understand our past if we cut out the experience, perspective, and influence of half the population.
2. Women’s history reveals the influence of patriarchy.
When we tell women’s full stories—their struggle as well as success—we notice the effects of patriarchy, effects often hidden when our histories focus on men. Take, for example, St. Clare of Assisi. In the thirteenth century, inspired by St. Francis and his new monastic order dedicated to an apostolic life of preaching, care for the poor, and poverty, Clare dedicated herself to an apostolic life.
However, as a woman, monastic life meant living in a cloister. This limited her ability to care for the poor and sick, as monasteries often didn’t allow women to leave the cloister. And as Clare herself attracted followers and became the leader of a monastic community, she had to fight church authorities for permission to refuse gifts of land or money, permission grudgingly granted to her specific community but often refused to other communities of women who also wanted to live in strict poverty.
Clare’s legacy is impressive; the monastic order she founded took her name soon after her death and still exists as the Poor Clares. But because the male church leaders didn’t consider it appropriate for women to leave their cloisters or live in total poverty, Clare’s ability to live the apostolic life she desired was limited. Clare had to fight to establish her order and she was forced to accept significant compromises in a way that Francis simply did not.
Clare is just one example of women who were able to achieve successes, such as establishing a new monastic order, but were also constrained and limited by patriarchy in their society. We must acknowledge this because, despite changing over the years, patriarchy continues to affect women today.
3. Women’s history honors our foremothers in the faith.
As Christians, we belong to the body of Christ—a body that transcends both place and time. We are connected with our brothers and sisters in churches, across national boundaries, and back through time. Learning women’s history is a way to honor the contributions women have made to the body of Christ. Many women’s voices have been constrained and their influence limited, but the prayers and work of women have, even so, shaped the church.
Just as we honor our forefathers in the faith — men like Paul, Augustine, and Luther —let us also honor the women —Priscilla, Monica, Katherine—who labored alongside them.
During Women’s History Month, we set aside time to celebrate the women who smashed glass ceilings (and stained-glass ceilings). As we rightly honor these fierce women, let us also remember the countless unnamed women who have built up and nurtured the body of Christ. Let us notice the patriarchal ideas and structures that limited many women historically, lamenting the damage done to them and to the church. And as we uncover and learn women’s history, let us both celebrate how much progress we’ve made in treating women as equals and also notice how patriarchy continues to harm and restrict women today.