A while ago I tutored a first year course on ancient Greek history. It was a pretty great experience, and I enjoyed it tremendously. We devoted a week to looking at Athenian women, and the associated historiographic issues. My main aim was to impress upon my first-years the difficulty of reconstructing the life of an Athenian woman, since our sources only really include those of upper-class males in a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, there are literally NO literary sources from women in ancient Athens– we only get the speculations and fears of Athenian men as to what ‘their’ women get up to when they’re not around. Oh, and of course we get lots of libelous insinuations about free-born women being prostitutes. Hi, Neaira! For the record, I think (or would like to think) you were a citizen.
All is not lost, of course, as we have epigraphy and archaeology to play with, as well as accidental references from the literary sources. See my previous post on why Classicists tend to be interdisciplinary.
It was an interesting week of classes, to say the least. We got some good debates going, which always makes for dynamic tutorials! A first-year student suggested that by using the term ‘history,’ I myself was reinforcing patriarchal values. I was somewhat taken aback.
‘Because it’s not history. It’s herstory.’
I had no ready answer, but I promised I would go away and think about it. I guess this post is the result of that thought process.
If I understand it correctly, the term ‘herstory’ is a product of second-generation feminism. It doesn’t come up all that often in historical circles any more, but is still kicking around in feminist discourse, to at least some extent.
As a concept, I can see the appeal. But the term itself troubles me. Please understand, I’m not trying to be a horrible mansplaining pillock. I’m trying to make an honest contribution to an important historical issue, here. It might be an issue of semantics, but as we all know, words have power.
I personally have real issues with the term, not least of which being that it’s based upon a false etymology. I can understand why people assume that the word ‘history’ originated from ‘his story.’ It really, really looks like it! Of course, people tend to forget that English is a hodge-podge of other languages. James Nicholl put it pretty well…
‘We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.’
The term ‘history’ is one of those loose bits of vocab to which we’ve helped ourselves. The word is based upon the Greek ιστορια (historia). My kingdom for a rough breathing marker! It’s an abstract noun based upon ιστορεω, ‘enquire, or research.’ The first use of historia occurs in the Greek historian, Herodotus. It was the title for his work, usually given in English as The Histories. A more accurate translation of the title might be ‘The Researches,’ but frankly that doesn’t sell books.
Anyway, it is curious that historia, like most Greek abstract nouns, is actually feminine in its gender. In other words, if we interpret the resulting English word as ‘his story,’ we’ve actually forced a patriarchal meaning onto a feminine word. I feel this occurs due to linguistic ignorance, more than anything else.
Of course, English is a quirky language, and it doesn’t play by its own rules, let alone those of its forebears. Why should our understanding of the English word be constrained by the Greek? Fair point. Let’s move on, and dwell in blissful ignorance of the philologists and grammarians we keep awake at night with our un-inflected shenanigans.
But there is an ideological problem with the term. The idea of history as ‘his story’ is considered offensive, and with good reason. Let’s face it, Western civilization has hitherto basically excluded women from its narrative. Traditionally, history has been the study of ‘great men.’ Cheers, Thomas Carlyle! You’ve managed to exclude half the population of the Earth, right there. In this sense, the grievance which motivates the use of the term herstory is quite legitimate. The idea that men in some sense own history is misogynistic and stupid.
But doesn’t the term herstory perpetuate the idea that history is in some sense the exclusive property of one gender? Since genuine feminism is (I hope) about the pursuit of equality, surely that should apply to feminist history as well?
Ah, but when we discuss herstory, we are so often talking about the history of women specifically. I can see the logic there. I think it’s brilliant that the historical study of women has flourished in the last forty years or so– it provides a fuller appreciation of female contributions to society. Goodness knows that my thesis, which deals with conceptualizations of pregnancy in antiquity, would be a lot poorer without feminist Classical scholarship. On the other hand, I do sometimes wonder about the usefulness of gender history that approaches ONE gender in isolation from others. Since people of different genders live side-by-side, I wonder if it is best to avoid removing women from the context of their relations with men. I think most feminist historians would agree with me. But the term herstory kind of cuts men out of the picture.
I’d love to see gender relations generally shift away from a battle-of-the-sexes mentality. It need not be a matter of dominance, but one of productive co-operation and shared responsibility. To do otherwise would simply continue the mistakes of patriarchy.
Is history her story? Yes, absolutely. But it’s also his story. It is the story of the entire human race.
I do hope that is a satisfactory answer for the first-year student, who of course laughed and said she was just teasing me.
Vale for now,