Practicing Herstory

Our psychological need for role models is one reason societies tend to change slowly. We can look to television and movies, to novels and songs, but one of the most difficult things for any of us to do is to imagine ourselves as something other than those we see immediately around us.

As a young child in the 1970s, I was conscious of the fight for women and girls to have more active public lives -- yet when I looked around me, most women were like my mother, staying at home, or like my teachers, working with children in some capacity. My mother took me to the library, and my parents both encouraged my intellectual curiosity from my youngest days. I wanted to be a mother when I grew up, but I also wanted to do other things.

I found my role models in history.

Finding those role models proved difficult. The further back I went in time, the fewer women I found. But I found them. No matter if I went back a decade, a century, a millennium, or multiple millennia, there was always a woman who made an impact by taking on a public role. It was these historical figures, revealed in small pieces of evidence, and my parents’ encouragement, that enabled me to think of myself in multiple roles.

Every other week here on the Monroe County National Organization for Women blog, I’m going to reveal one woman who has contributed to the ongoing fight for equality in the U.S. Finding others who have fought for equality can be reassuring: we aren’t re-inventing the wheel; we are continuing the fight. It can be disheartening to realize how long the fight for equality has been going on. I want to share the victories and the struggles in hopes that you will feel energized to strive by learning about others who have fought and are fighting the same battle today.

In this first post, I want to explain why I decided to focus my column on these mini-biographies.

As a historian, I value objectively evaluating evidence about the past and using it to try to understand that past above everything else. I know that I’m not perfect. I have biases born of my experiences as well as physical and intellectual limitations. To write this column and to help discover the truth, I have to be aware of and attempt to counter these limitations and biases, so I’ve set up guidelines for myself:

  • First, I will look for women (in the widest meaning) whose lives include the date of each of these columns. This may be the date she made an important contribution to our world, but most often it will be a birth or death date. Using the essay publication date forces me to search multiple sources for women whose lives are documented on those dates. It would be easy to fall back onto women whose stories so many of us know already, but I want to learn about all of our foremothers.
  • Second, I will only write about women whose lives are documented by at least three sources. Primarily, these sources will be online, but I will also turn to books, magazines, and newspapers. I will not be doing original archival research, but when I can use primary accounts, I will do so.
  • Finally, I will choose women whose actions and words made a change toward equality. That change might be huge, resulting in new laws; it might be local, such as a school or charity; or it could be personal, such as the first woman to open a bank account. Each is a possible role model for us.

I’m going to break guideline one to get us started, because you need to briefly meet Robin Morgan. She is credited with coining the term “herstory” in the subheader of her article “Goodbye to All That,” published in 1970 (view two other versions of the essay below).

Morgan did not misunderstand the origin of the word “history” in the Greek word istoría, or historia, which referred to an inquiry into something; after Herodotus, it was most often used to refer to the study of the past. “Herstory” was a play on words, pointing out the male focus of most historical work, both in terms of subject and scholar. Furthermore, “herstory” was an unabashed challenge to look at women in the past through a feminist lens. I believe that merely looking objectively at women’s lives in the past can itself be a feminist action, though the theory you use to judge the evidence is important.

Robin Morgan has been an activist, actor, author, journalist, lecturer, and theorist, fighting for equality since the 1960s. She edited and contributed to “Sisterhood is Powerful,” a 1970 anthology of women’s writings that I read in college in 1989. That collection has been cited as one of the starting points of contemporary feminism, also called Second Wave Feminism. Morgan followed up that anthology with two more, trying to expand the reach of feminism. Morgan also co-founded two organizations -- the Sisterhood Is Global Institute in 1984 and Women’s Media Center in 2005. Morgan is a living example of how one woman can band together with others to make a change worldwide.

Every other week, I will practice herstory by sharing the lives of women who were and are fighting for equality. I hope you find them as intriguing and as inspiring as I do.

Goodbye to All That”(version two)
Goodbye to All That” (version three)