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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 1, September 2004

Why is there a women's history month?

by Jane Turner

In October 1929, the Privy Council of England declared that women in Canada are persons and therefore entitled to receive the same rights and privileges afforded to men. Yes, that was a significant event for women in Canada, and every Canadian should know about it. But why designate one month every year—October—Women’s History Month? If October is women’s history month, is every other month men’s history month?

If women’s history were mainstream, we wouldn’t need a special month designated to study women’s past. It is a huge mistake, not just a loss, to eliminate half of humanity from our view of the way the world has unfolded and the events that have shaped it. We end up with a pretty skewed view of the way the world was and is. It also is misleading to those whose stories are being told. Their view of the world and how it was shaped is incomplete. Let’s look at the contemporary example of the war in Iraq.

History will explain George Bush and Tony Blair’s public posturing. It will list Saddam’s sins, and it will probably analyze the importance of oil. But will that give us a good understanding of the war in Iraq? It will only if we don’t care to understand how the war affected the people who live there and the long-term impact it had on their actions. If history’s account includes the effect the war is having on women then the history expands to include the effects of the bombing on the infrastructure of the cities, the alienation of the population from the "American liberators," and the potential increase in anti-Western terrorist activities.

How can we know all of this from studying about women? you might ask. Well, women are the ones who do most of the cooking and caring for children and the elderly in the society. If they can’t get water through their taps; if their children and parents become sick with typhus because the sewer systems have been destroyed and they die because there is not enough medicine and the hospitals have been bombed; if the schools are closed because it’s too dangerous to send the children to them as they might become regrettable, collateral damage—the ifs can go on and on, and each one builds an understanding of the effects war has on a population. Those understandings give us glimpses into the mindset of people who have so completely lost hope, who are filled with so much hate that for them, taking the lives of civilians and killing themselves in the process becomes an option.

Fortunately, with our current ability to access many sources of information, we see a wide range of events connected to the invasion and bombing of Iraq. We have the ability to open up current events to include women’s lives as part of our understanding. But when the history gets written, what will it tell us and, more important perhaps, what will it teach us? To feel a rightful sense of place, all people need to know their history, the stories of their past. It is hard to have that connection to the past when their story is never told.

But the stories need to be told in meaningful and integrated ways. History that attempts to include women, without fundamentally altering the way it is structured will result in tokenism—what is sometimes referred to as "the shadowed box." How many of us have seen texts that have part of a page shaded, boxed, and focussed on some woman’s contribution or peripheral connection to the main core of what is being explained? The first woman in space, the first woman director, the first woman parliamentarian is token information unless it is woven into the core fabric of the history being explored. We don’t need tokenism. We need a real exploration of women’s lives that will help us build a more complete understanding of the past.

The best example of a history book that opens up women’s lives and situates them meaningfully in the broad historical context of their time is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning history by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich entitled A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based On Her Diary 1785–1812 (Vintage Books. 1991). Thatcher Ulrich has used a midwife’s daily journal entries to shed light on the society, its norms, laws, medical practices, and economy. This is a history that is relevant any month of the year, not just in Women’s History Month.

And that is the point, isn’t it? The history of half the population shouldn’t be trotted out once a year to commemorate an anniversary. Women’s lives, women’s past, deserve to be woven into the fabric of all history so that everyone’s understanding encompasses a bigger and broader picture of the past. I hope that historians and those of us who teach history will get it before too many more Octobers come and go.

Resources

The 75th Anniversary of the Persons Case is an excellent opportunity to highlight the important contribution of women to Canadian society and the vital role that they play in shaping the country’s future.

To assist you in organizing an activity to mark this special month, Status of Women Canada (SWC) has developed a poster and a Virtual Organizer’s Tool Kit (available on-line only)

The Organizer’s Tool Kit provides background information about Women’s History Month and suggestions to help you plan activities for this special month (suggested books, Web sites, etc.).

Visit the Canadian Status of Women web site: www.swc-cfc.gc.ca and click on "commemorative dates."

Jane Turner is an assistant director in the BCTF’s Professional and Social Issues Division.



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