On the way home the other day, a fellow carpooler in the backseat began flipping through my school’s IGCSE history textbook. It took a minute before she dismissively asked, “So, where are the women in this book?” I bit my tongue.
The knee-jerk reaction to the prevalence and dominance of white male characters in culture and history is common, understandable, and not wholly wrong. The world is much bigger than one demographic, but in the American context that demographic has dominated culture and politics. Consequently, it is not entirely surprising that historians, who have focused on asking questions about the development of national power and culture, have tended to select white men as their main characters since that group of individuals held the reins for the majority of American history. This historiographical tradition addressed the major currents of the past, but missed the eddies, streams, and small isles that also constituted the great river of American history. In the 1960s feminist and race historians began to ask questions about these lesser known facets of the American past and thereby expanded our understanding of history. Our picture is now richer because of these pioneers.
But these feminist and race historians, when they are doing their work well, are not doing reactionary history. They are genuinely curious about unexplored patches of the past. Unfortunately liberals grab onto these histories and appropriate them for their own political agenda dominated by the oppressor-oppressed matrix. As yath00m has pointed out elsewhere, this is playground logic: the white-man has dominated the swing set for so long, now it is the ladies turn! Of course, you cannot rewrite the past and pretend that men have not dominated, but for the liberal, if a history is to have any real value, it should be liberally sprinkled with minorities. Thus, my colleagues dismissive question makes perfect sense.
This criticism, though, is knee-jerk and irrelevant. The historical narrative you tell is dependent on the questions you ask and the textbook in question was designed for a curriculum that focuses on international affairs during the 20th century. Of course, some of the bloodiest wars of history dominated those hundred year and consequently the textbook focuses predominately on the causes, practices, and consequences of the major wars and periods of peace. As far as narratives go, it is a good one as it provides my international students with the major outlines and contours of the interactions between the world powers and gives them the background to appreciate the present (the other day I did a lesson on Sykes-Picot and then jumped to the present maelstrom that’s engulfing the Middle East).
And this is what reactive liberals miss. They assume women must be part of the story, and if they are absent, some injustice has been done. But with the exception of Margaret Thatcher, women are fairly irrelevant to this very important story that the textbook and curriculum explore. In fact, to shoehorn more women into the story would undermine the stated purpose of the book and do a disservice to the actual (male) actors who drove the narrative in their search for peace, power, national security, and human rights.
Further, the critique that the book needs more women is akin to someone complaining that men are under-represented in Little Women or that there are no Ewoks in Lord of the Rings. It fails to address the work on its own terms and blasts it for not being the book one would like to read. If the book was a general history of the United States and women made no appearance, then yes, there would be problem. We can thank feminist (not exclusively female) historians for bringing this to light. But for a textbook on international affairs of the 20th century, the absence of women is no more insulting than the absence of Tatars or Tibetan monks. Fragments of intelligence mixed with identity politics often leads to thoughtless criticism.
So, I bit my tongue as it was not worth getting into an argument with my colleague, but I will say what I thought then: “Duh, of course women aren’t in the textbook and that’s ok.”