The Gift of Women's History

In March 2018, Women’s History Month, I launched Egyptian Enigma at the National Library of Australia. 

This is the speech I delivered, imploring readers to reclaim the richness and diversity of women's history. My reasons were personal...

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Every book on the powerful, audacious, brilliant women of the past is another chance to reclaim our collective inheritance.

 

Each time my eyes alight on a book featuring a woman from history I smile. For me, it is helping to right a wrong.

As a kid enthralled by history I read voraciously, especially textbooks and encyclopaedia entries about leaders, inventors, philosophers, warriors and heroes. I read their stories and daydreamed about leading armies, building cities and ruling over distant lands. Then one day it dawned on me:  the people described in history as doing these things were all men.

What did that mean for me, a girl? And where were the women in history?

I scoured my shelves until I found them. They were there, in the footnotes on every civilisation, cooking and cleaning and raising children. Did this mean that I—as a girl—shouldn’t set out to design cities or lead nations?

I found this lack of diversity in the descriptions of women’s contributions to history irritating at first, then annoying, and finally infuriating. At university I poured through academic journals and archaeological site reports and found that each civilisation I investigated did have female stateswomen, scholars, and businesswomen, but they hadn’t made it into my textbooks.

Why? Partly, I think, due to intergenerational habit. For so long history textbooks were written by men who were raised on the history of men, so they thought and wrote only of men. In that context it is easy to overlook, downplay or dismiss one woman at a time until the majority of popular history is silent on what women did.

However, in some instances it appears to be more deliberate, a game of historical smoke and mirrors. For those pesky women of exceptional intelligence or drive or valour whose lives demand attention, the collective memory written by men has often focussed on their appearance or sexuality rather than their social significance.

Take one of the English-speaking world’s foremost women in history, Elizabeth I. Phenomenally politically astute and a remarkable commander of her legal, economic, military and exploration systems, Elizabeth I ruled for 44 years and ushered in what historians have dubbed England’s Golden Age.

Yet how is she remembered? As the Virgin Queen. Numerous volumes have been written on her love life—or lack thereof—while largely ignoring her brilliance as a leader, a line of speculation I find irksome. When accounts of Elizabeth I’s reign focus on that one aspect of her life, they deny women an outstanding female role model for political ambition and success. (For an historical fiction series that does explore the depth and breadth of Elizabeth I’s personality, try Jane Caro’s Just a Girl and Just a Queen.)

Cleopatra VII of Egypt is another female ruler viewed in popular history almost exclusively through the twin lenses of appearance and sexuality. Like Elizabeth I, Cleopatra VII survived a perilous childhood to rule her country. She entered the world stage as a teenager and went on to defend Egypt’s borders and negotiate astounding alliances in the cutthroat world of ancient Mediterranean politics. Yet what is she most remembered for? Having a big nose and sleeping with a couple of men. Meanwhile, her successes are generally attributed to the efforts of the men around her. (For a biography that seeks to redress the balance, see Stacey Schiff’s biography, Cleopatra: A Life.)

Does history care who Abraham Lincoln slept with? Is Charlemagne remembered for having a nice figure? Is Hammurabi’s code ever attributed to his wife? Turn the tables and you can see the absurdity and dismissiveness of this perspective.

It is this prejudice against the women of history that compels me to research and write the Dr Pimms, Intermillennial Sleuth series. I want women to know about Ix, a player of the gruelling and deadly Mesoamerican ballgame in ancient Mexico. I want girls’ stories to include Lady Six Sky, the ambitious and politically robust seventh century Maya Princess. (These women’s lives are explored in Olmec Obituary and Mayan Mendacity, Books One and Two in the Dr Pimms series.)

Today, I'm releasing Egyptian Enigma, Book Three in the series. It features Tausret—final Pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty and granddaughter to Ramesses II—showcasing the fortitude of this incredible woman as she strove to protect her country from the ravages of political conflict, war and famine.

My greatest hope for this Women’s History Month is—as it is for every Women's History Month, Mother's Day and celebration of women—for readers everywhere to grab, borrow or gift a book on a woman from antiquity, learn about her life, then talk about her with family and friends. For the more we acknowledge the diversity of female leaders, inventors, philosophers, warriors and heroes of the past, the more confidently girls and women of all ages can stride toward a future full of possibilities.

That’s why each book featuring a documented woman from history makes me smile:  it represents another piece of collective women’s history reclaimed.