History is written by the victors

The victors, in the case of what is perceived as world history, being white men. And when children are taught in school that all important discoveries or inventions have been made by men, it seems natural that some of them come to conclusions like this:

“First of all, look through history. Men pretty much did all the stuff from day 1. We hunted the food, then we grew the food, then we shot the food, and so on. Women were essential only in reproducing. Men are naturally stronger, can take more wear and tear, and usually smarter too.
By the way im not sexist or anything. “

And I tend to think that that guy actually *believes* that he is not sexist. After all, he only repeats what he learned in school. I for one cannot remember about being explicitely taught about brilliant women that could not persue their carreers or dreams because of the intrinsic sexism of the society they lived in.

What really gets to me though is when adult people that should be capable of critical thinking, utter sentimens that mirror those of naive 14 year olds. Like the art critic Brian Sewell in this truly fantastic (i.e. unreal) statment: “There has never been a first-rank woman artist. Only men are capable of aesthetic greatness. Women make up 50 per cent or more of classes at art school. Yet they fade away in their late 20s or 30s. Maybe it’s something to do with bearing children.”
Yeah. It is perhaps the uteruses of these women that reach up through their throat and throttle the artistic centre of their brains, to reference Douglas Adams. It can’t have anything to do with society and its sexism.

The examples in history where works of art by female artists were published under the names of their husbands, brothers or mentors because of “unacceptability” illustrate not that the times they grew up in were sexist, but that those works must have been inferior, because women created them. Which is why those works then were acclaimed after being published under a male name (as was the case for example with the Bronte Sisters). Right. Got that.

When Delia Derbyshire, with a degree in mathematics and music from Cambridge applied at Decca in 1959, she was told, that the company did not employ women. Obviously, her degrees notwithstanding, her work must have been inferior.

The mathematician Emmy Noether applied for a position at the unversity of Erlangen in 1915 she was denied the position for which she was qualified. As one professor protested: “What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?”. So a person that, as the Wikipedia puts it “[is] often described as the most important woman in the history of mathematics”, and today is the first time that I heard of her.

What of Artemisia Gentileschi? Ada Lovelace? I didn’t know them from school. I know about them because I happen to be a cineast and I have seen movies about those women.

What of Fanny Hensel (neĆ© Mendelssohn-Bartholdy) who, like her brother Felix showed exceptional musical talent from childhood on. Her father however wrote to her “Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament”, explicitely because of her sex, not because of a lack of talent. She was given the highest praise, that she “plays like a man.” Some of her early works were published under her brother’s name. Some work only had their first public performance in the 1980s, 140 years after Hensel’s death.

These were women whose art oder science was *not* inferior to those of their contemporary men. They weren’t hired or published or lauded specifically because of their sex. Although that fact makes me angry, it is nothing compared to the anger that I feel when I hear that *today* children still do not learn that historically, many talented women weren’t *allowed* to excel in their field of work, and who some of those women were.

“My Mother’s experience in high school. In 1955, her fancy college-prep school refused to let girls take math beyond geometry because “girls would distract the boys” (I lost the link, it was in a thread at Shapely Prose about sexism in school). How many children of today will not reach their full potential because their talent might not lie in an area that is traditionally linked to their sex?

It would be much easier for girls to refuse when they are being told to give up a hobby or an ambition because “girls are just not good at that“, if they had more examples of women succeeding, or if at least there were a larger awareness that many times in history some women didn’t succeed not because they were inferior, but because some men back then and still today suppress their works.

This entry was posted in Feminism, History, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to History is written by the victors

  1. Pingback: History of Mathematics Blog » Blog Archive » History is written by the victors

  2. Pingback: Hero of the Day: Delia Derbyshire « Life on Mars

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