Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Why do we call it "women's" history?

April 8, 2011 by Joanne Murray


This is a guest post by Joanne Murray, Director of the Legacy Center at Drexel University College of Medicine.

The best thing about my job at the Legacy Center at Drexel University College of Medicine is that it requires spending each day thinking about history. One of our predecessor institutions was the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, the first medical school in the world for women.

Our archival collections focus largely on the history of women. I don’t like the phrase “women’s history.” Aside from the fact that it marginalizes women (Shouldn’t there be a “men’s history” month too?), it doesn’t really make sense.

History is not owned solely by those who make it. It is not beneficial only to the descendants of those involved directly in its creation. Its impact is felt by more than a declared and discrete group of people. Men are also a part of the history of women, and are heirs of that past, just as women are part of, and heirs to, the history of men. Let’s take women in medicine for example. At first glance, you might think that the primary and secondary materials in our collections reflect only the history of women -- as physicians; through their struggles in earning a medical education and a place in professional medicine; as those in the forefront of women’s health.

All of that is there. But those histories, and related histories, are also about men. The history of the first women’s medical school, which was founded by men and initially staffed entirely by men, is documented there. The history of 19th and 20th century wars is there. Those stories do not belong entirely to women or men. The history of suffrage is there, which is definitely a story that is as much about men as it is about women.

At the Center

This post is to close out our Vision 2020 exhibit, which ended March 31. Read more here.

The history of medicine is there, one that is shared by both genders. Women and men together are ever-present in the acid-free boxes of original documents that illuminate the past, even if, at first glance, one gender seems to be stealing the spotlight. All people live, act, react, hope, and dream. The history of human beings is shared by women and men, for good or ill, and all of it should be learned, interpreted, taught, and built upon.

Why? Because what we know of the past, and what we hope for in the future, are the two beacons that guide us in our decision-making in the present. If we don’t understand the past, we can’t create the future we want. I want women to earn the same salary for doing the same work that men do. I want my nation’s Congress to comprise more than 17 percent women – half would be appropriate.

I want more than 66 percent of women to vote. I want my country’s employers and government to lead in family leave policies, not trail far behind. I want my daughters and the world around them to fully recognize and act upon what they and we already know.

They are not the same as men, but they are equal. That’s the future I want. And we can’t have it until we stop thinking of the history of women as women’s history.


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