On history, and how the winners write it

This little post is inspired by the amazing blog US History Minus White Guys, a Tumblr devoted to honoring the women and POC often ignored in mainstream history textbooks. Almost all of it is completely new information to me, and it has made me analyze my own US history education and how my learning was shaped by dead white men.

I have always loved American history; until my junior year of high school I actually wanted to major in it. My biggest complaint with my history curriculums was always that they were too focused on war. Yes, war is important, but memorizing specific Civil War battles was exhausting and seemed/seems pretty irrelevant. I was always more invested in domestic and behind-the-scenes history. There was a period where the Laura Ingalls Wilder books were the only ones I read; I wanted to know what it was like to actually live in the past, not just the details of Guadalcanal. While war is important and influential, I don’t think it captures what history is “supposed to be about.” History is, in a very bald sense, studying the past to try to understand our own present and future. Yeah, that applies to armor design, but I’ve always (at least subconsciously) understood that social norms and politics and actual citizens give us much stronger insight into our cultures.

And war is fundamentally a masculine arena – power and honor and violence and strength. That always alienated me. In this war-centric model, the women and children are rape/genocide statistics, or else prizes of victory (in biblical times and now, at least to an extent). I always looked for myself in history, and I only saw that in domestic asides about how pioneer women gathered buffalo chips for a fire or in a figure of a teenage girl’s cross-stitch pattern. That’s why books like Wilder’s and the Dear America series were so important to me – they were entire plots centered around a fully functional girl with a dynamic personality, real problems, and agency within her narrative.

I always worried that I was too interested in the girly side of history, but I totally missed the point! Home life IS the girly side of history, because it’s traditionally the only place where you see anything female! And this leads to my current interests, which center specifically around women and gender and sexuality (and race, class, disability, and all other intersecting, disenfranchised identities). I need to see ME (and I use the first person loosely here) represented in historical contexts, because I know I’m there. I’m there a lot, and I’m continually surprised by how many non-white guys are a part of this country’s history. I wish I had known about them when I was 12.

(I think I’ve done a poor job of articulating my thoughts. It makes sense in my head.)

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3 comments
  1. Ah, Little House on the Prairie!! I was never a huge fan of history class when I was a child, but I used to plow through historical fiction kid lit with female protagonists. Now I am realizing why the latter may have appealed to me so much more. History textbooks need to include more women, both so they will provide a more accurate depiction of historical events and so they can make more young girls feel like history is relevant to them.

  2. thinkdoc said:

    the link to the Tumblr site is broken — can you fix that? Great blog to visit. . .

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