I find purpose during the job hunt by reading feminist literature. One day I hope to affect this realm of work. My logic: How can I talk the talk without walking my imagination along the path that other women have trod?
Over the summer I read My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem and also The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Right now, I’m on page 158 of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. There are 766 pages of text.
As a writer, I have always been intrigued by the notion of “history” and “history-making.” History is the study of past events (particularly in human affairs). History offers us a kind of truth by “virtue” of its record-making (more on that later). But as we acknowledge the light, or “knowledge-making” of this truth, we must also question the darkness, or the biases of the narrative itself.
I first was introduced to this idea when reading, A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters by Julian Barnes, in undergrad. The book begins from the perspective of a lowly woodworm who retells the story of Noah’s Arc. Bitter because his voice was ignored for so long, he recounts events of the great flood with distaste. The woodworm calls Noah and his crew detestable, in addition to explaining why we don’t have unicorns in modern day.
Real talk: the last living unicorn pair went crazy one afternoon and decided to jump ship.
We must take this mystical cynic lightly. But Barnes continues to make a good point. History—the lens through which we view the truth—also contains the narrative of those subjugated by history itself by omission. What I call “The Hidden Narrative”—these are the stories of women, African Americans, Hispanics, and many others (see here too, my bias for not mentioning more for fear of minimal attention spans). The Hidden Narrative is masked by the Dominant.
For example, I have argued that gentrification is a systemic problem perpetuated by the dominant narrative that sees “positivity in progress.” What is absent is the hidden narrative of those who are subjugated by this process. Only by having conversation and recognizing a shared history, can we reconcile with the shameful aspects of our past. Georgetown University did this the other day, as they published a book on their slavery beginnings that financed the early days of the University.
Narrative is also a huge motivator for how we choose to go about living our lives and make decisions about our future, given the story of our past. This is the personal narrative. However, we cannot forget about the narrative that society has woven for us as individuals too, and whether or not that coincides with our choices, or the story we want to write for ourselves.
Feminist Simone de Beauvoir got me thinking about these issues by writing, on page 151 of The Second Sex (1949):
“Most feminine heroines are extravagant: adventurers or eccentrics notable less for their actions than for their unique destinies; take Joan of Arc, Madame Roland, and Flora Tristan: if they are compared with Richelieu, Danton, or Lenin (ahem, famous dudes), it is clear their greatness is mainly subjective; they are exemplary figures more than historical agents. A great man springs from the mass and is carried by circumstances; the mass of women is at the fringes of history, and for each of them circumstances are an obstacle and not a springboard. To change the face of the world, one has first to be firmly anchored to it; but women firmly rooted in society are those subjugated by it; unless they are designated for action by divine right—and in this case they are shown to be as capable as men—the ambitious women and the heroine are strange monsters. Only since women have begun to feel at home on this earth has a Rosa Luxembourg or a Madame Curie emerged. They brilliantly demonstrate that it is not women’s inferiority that has determined their historical insignificance: it is their historical insignificance that has doomed them to inferiority.”
Beauvoir’s last sentence illustrates why minorities throughout human existence have been subjugated. Why, historically, have women been “historically insignificant?” Because the people responsible for history-making—AKA the gatekeepers to knowledge and information—have been a white men’s club only, according to Beauvoir.
How is this relevant to today?
- By a nearly 3 to 1 margin, male front-page bylines at top newspapers outnumbered female bylines in coverage of the 2012 presidential election. Men were also far more likely to be quoted than women in newspapers, television and public radio.
- Women comprised 39 percent of documentary directors whose work appeared in major festivals in 2012-13
- Obituaries about men far outnumber those of women in top national and regional newspapers
- Women comprised just 9 percent of the directors of the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2013.
(Statistics from the Women’s Media Center)
I end this post with encouragement to press onward for those who have felt left out of History, and wish for more Herstories. Or, for those who are struggling to see mentors for the personal narratives they wish to play out. We must realize and openly acknowledge, together, what history has been in order to engage, reconcile, and begin to develop more inclusive narratives. We cannot let history be a barrier to the significance of the lives we lead.