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Six accomplished women in maths and science who deserve more respect by Ruby Hamad in Daily Life
I was so pleased to hear that Clare Wright won the Stella Prize for “The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka”.
It is so important that women’s contribution to history and women’s development is acknowledged and documented.
I have become extremely interested in learning about women’s history since I discovered Gerda Lerner’s work on women’s history.
Her books ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’ and ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’ are ground-breaking in their analysis of women throughout Western history.
She documents how throughout history women have been present, have contributed to the development of society and have challenged their restricted roles in society.
They have written and fought for women to have a voice. However, their voices have been silenced, ignored and unrecorded.
History as we have known it has been written by men and about men.
“Historical scholarship, up to the most recent past, has seen women as marginal to the making of civilisation and as unessential to those pursuits defined as having historic significance.” (Lerner, p.4, The Creation of Patriarchy)
She argues that women have been denied knowledge of their own history.
This lack of awareness of our struggles and achievements – and exclusion from theoretical thoughts and ideas – has maintained the subordination of women in patriarchy.
This has resulted in women being alienated from their own collective experience.
She outlines how women can be shown to have, throughout generations, developed intellectual thought and ideas and resisted the constraints of patriarchy.
However they were ignored in the passing down of historical thought, which was confined to male thinking. Thus there was a “Discontinuity in the story of women’s intellectual effort.”
“Men develop ideas and systems of explanation by absorbing past knowledge, and critiquing, and superseding it. Women, ignorant of their own history, did not know what women before them had thought and taught. So generation after generation, they struggled for insights others had already had before them.” (Lerner, p. 19, ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’)
Her analysis also considers race and class and how they intersect with patriarchy.
However, Lerner’s analysis ends on a positive note. She explains how the women’s movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s has begun to develop a written history of women’s experiences, intellectual thought and knowledge.
The establishment of women’s studies and women’s history courses throughout educational establishments has played a major role in this. And women’s thoughts can no longer be dismissed.
“Once the basic fallacy of patriarchal thought – the assumption that a half of humankind can adequately represent the whole – has been exposed and explained, it can no more be undone than was the insight that the earth is round, not flat.” (Lerner, p. 273 ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’)
She describes the need for a “Feminist consciousness” which recognizes that women “…belong to a subordinate group and that, as members of such a group, they have suffered wrongs;” and that this subordination is socially determined.
What has developed in recent times is the “…development of a sense of sisterhood.” And thus women have been able to define
“.. goals and strategies for changing their condition; and… the development of an alternate vision of the future.(Lerner, p. 274, ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’)
Throughout history when women have begun the process of challenging patriarchy, there has been a backlash against feminism and feminist thought.
“Interestingly, conservative political groups always consider the threat of feminism a central issue and made the repression of women’s organisations in an inevitable and essential feature of their political program.” (Lerner, P 279, ‘The Creation of Feminist Consciousness’)
And it is very apparent in Australia – currently and for at least the last 20 years – that women are experiencing a backlash against feminism. The threatened cuts and closure of women-only services occurring at state and federal levels are only one such example of this. And the extreme sexist and misogynistic vitriol that is aimed at women both on the internet and against women in leadership positions (see discussion about Julia Gillard) is extremely concerning to say the least.
But Gerda Lerner sums it up thus:
“As history teaches us, any movement that cannot be sustained for fifty or one hundred years is not likely to accomplish its goal. For the future of feminism, we need grassroots organization. We need a long-range perspective. We need people with staying power.” (Lerner, Living with History, Making Social Change, p. 187)
When Lerner was asked about the future of women’s studies:
“For 4,000 years, men have defined culture by looking at the activities of other men,” (Lerner) said, putting on her professorial voice. “The minute we started questioning it, the first question was, ‘Well, when are you going to stop separating yourself out and mainstream? Give us another 4,000 years and we’ll talk about mainstreaming.”