Friday, 7 October 2011

What is the point of Women’s/Black/Left-handed History?

It always seems strange to me that some people, who often rail against any perceived or real segregation in the modern world, seek to do precisely that to the world of ages past.

Human history is obviously too enormous to be a single subject and has to be sliced into easier portions for consumption. Given its temporal nature, cut-off points at important moments of human history (Charlemagne’s becoming Roman emperor on Christmas Day 800AD, or the birth of Jesus, or the end of a dynasty etc) are obvious moments to begin or end a subject. Likewise, national or organisational cut-offs (religious movements, nation-states etc) make sense.

But trying to teach something like Women’s History, for example, seems slightly bonkers to me. It is true that much of the world’s history, particularly ancient history (which I prefer), is dominated by men. But that’s because that is what happened. Carving up historical episodes to suit a modern political agenda doesn’t alter what happened, and filtering history using identity politics means that especially interesting parts of history may be neglected for tedious moments because the protagonists lack the ‘right’ skin colour, gender and so forth.

I was surprised to read in Herodotus’ Histories (which, despite the odd sparkling gem, I do not recommend) about the female captain in the fleet that accompanied Xerxes, and was his particular favourite. Similarly, Edward Gibbon recalls the Empress Zenobia, who ruled the Palmyrene Empire before Aurelian defeated her. If you segregate these moments and individuals from the wider context then at best a misleading picture is painted.

Xerxes sought to complete his father’s (Darius) work and conquer Greece. To do so he amassed the largest army ever seen and a correspondingly enormous fleet. If you focus upon the female captain exclusively then you miss the big picture (and the world-changing Battle of Thermopylae).

In the 3rd century AD the Roman Empire was falling to pieces. There were multiple rival emperors to Aurelian, and it was eminently possible that the Dark Ages could have started a few centuries earlier than they did. One of these breakaway empires was the Palmyrene Empire which, for a time, was led by Zenobia. Aurelian managed to unify the empire by defeating all rivals, including Zenobia, but her story only makes sense in the wider context of a fragmented and failing Roman Empire.

Defining oneself by gender or skin colour is slightly bizarre. Should we not be judged by the content of our character rather than the colour of our skin, as a gentleman once suggested? It’s perverse to promulgate equality and neutrality when it comes to such matters in the modern world and then insist on looking at the past through a racial or sexual lens.



  1. This is one of those issues that produces a "yes, but" (or "no, but" depending on mood) response. On the one hand I agree that taken to extremes black/feminist etc. history can distort the teaching of history, especially the urge to idealise the chosen subject and blame all the evils of the world on Dead White European Males.

    On the other hand however one is reminded of the cases of people like Mary Seacole, who is at least as important a figure in the history of nursing as Florence Nightingale but who was for a long time ignored by conventional history teaching for no other obvious reason than because she was black. Rescuing her story from obscurity is definitely a positive achievement of black history as a topic.

    So history has a point if it helps to fill in gaps in conventional history that we didn't even know existed because it never occurred to us look for them. If it seeks to replace conventional history then it starts to become harmful.

  2. Blast - last paragraph was supposed to start "so (group) history..." but the site code took the parentheses I used around group as some sort of html and swallowed it:-/

  3. I agree, Mr. Random.

    History is all about what really happened. Correcting the prejudices of the past is entirely right (indeed, essential), but those who crowbar in a modern brand of identity politics may simply replace old prejudices with new ones.