Rethinking Herstory

By Christine Davis, Africa Alliance of YMCAs volunteer

Recently, in preparation for this Women's Day article, I ran a search on famous African females in history. I am a little perplexed that the only responses I could find seemed to be limited to African Americans, a few South African singers, artists and authors and Charlize Theron, who as all the references to her stated, “ African even if she is white.”

Not only did I struggle to get a historical accounting of famous female leaders in our African political history but I found a distinct lack of names when looking at our artistic, literary and cultural heritages. The lack of information is telling because it sends a clear message of who the victor is in the ongoing gender-rights struggle. I have realised that our women's history, especially African women's history, really does belong to the victor. It belongs to the men. Men have remained the victors despite a century of determined women's rights advocacy very simply because of their prominence in our history. Their ownership of their own history extends to the ownership of women's history too. When you look at the arts, sciences and technological advancements, it is not that male names are in the majority... it's that they tend to be the only names mentioned and with far more regularity than those of their female counterparts. I know it is tempting to explain away this absence by claiming population statistics, but if women represent 70 percent of the worlds 6.7 billion people population and there is a distinct lack of evidence of their activities in history, then statistical assumptions will not work. If the majority of the world's population do not exist in our ongoing history, then the historical records are flawed and need to be corrected.

Politicians, activists and education specialists have been aware of this for some time, and as a result, certain official dates such as women's rights day, and gender-mainstreaming quotas become created to change the situation over time. All noble, but after a century of these efforts, world history still remains notable not for its accurate accounting of our human development, but instead for the absence of women's roles in shaping it.

It is not hard then, in failing to fully understand the way our societies have been shaped by women, to further limit their activities to the roles we do easily recognise women in: mothers, wives, teachers and care-givers. Leadership roles are not most often attributed and therefore assigned to women and neither are moments of great social change. So, to really understand the development of women's rights, we need to look to the situation 100 years ago and compare the rights available then to those available now.

In 1910, fewer than five countries had extended women's rights to allow for women's suffrage, the right to vote. This changed fairly rapidly, however, after the first International Women's Day was called for in 1910 by Clara Zetkin, the leader of the Social Democratic Party's Women's Office in Germany. International Women's Day has then occurred annually on 8 March since 1913. The day was created as a way in which to coordinate advocacy efforts to ensure the improvement of women's rights and most specifically, agitate for the right of women to vote. Since then, fewer than 10 countries worldwide continue to forbid women's rights as they extend to voting. When looking at the short period of time (on average 10-20 years) after the first Internationals Women's Day for a woman's right to vote to become common place, it is clear then that Clara Zetkin's role is paramount in global history, not just women's history. Without her advocacy and call for this international day of awareness and advocacy, women's rights might not have progressed as quickly as they have and many women would not have access to many of the rights they have now. Why is it then that as a gender specialist with a university qualification and 10 years of experience in gender issues,I had not learned anything of (and by extention FROM) Clara Zetkin until I researched this article. Where are the countless women within Africa who have shown a similiar passion and determination for women's rights mentioned?

The problem with the absence of women in history then eventually extends to the current problem of a lack of role models for women leaders today. Despite the majority of the world's population professing for equal rights, women are still under-employed, under-paid, under-educated and under-represented in economic, scientific and political spheres. The reason for this is simple human behaviour. People tend to create patterns out of those things they are comfortable with and those things that make them feel safe. For many, even after 100 years of targeted women's rights activism, a large percentage of the population is still more comfortable with women remaining in private spaces. Most surprisingly, the adult population that tends to feel this way are the world's adult youth, those between the ages of 18-34. A study conducted by Reuters/Ipsos indicates that over a quarter of the world's population still believe that a women's role should remain within the home and of those 24 000 people and 23 countries studied, some of the more powerful world leaders had the highest indication of gender discrimination. 33% of South Koreans', 34% of Russians, Chinese and Hungarians and 48% of the Japanese believe women should not take an active role in economic or political spheres and should remain within the home.

Ironically too, the opposite environmental conditioning creates a similar problem. In countries where gender mainstreaming has become most successful, young female professionals are becoming aware of what a British labour academic, Elisabeth Kelan, is calling `gender fatigue'. Essentially, gender discrimination has become more subtle in successful gender-mainstreaming countries because of the high educational and gender sensitivity training of staff. Whereas developing countries, in recognising a blatant gender problem may create spaces and activities to address gender awareness, places with so called gender fatigue, deny the need for a space because they feel they have already long since dealt with the problem, resulting ultimately in a false sense of security and a continuing lack of space for women in positions of management, power and control.

Gender discrimination is a subtle tool of control. The roots of gender discrimination are complex and varied and are deeply imbedded in all aspects of social lives. Religion has been both influenced by, and the architect of, the nature of gender relationships today, as has every cultural practice, ethnic ceremony, artistic work and literary debate. Gender then is not a new construct created through the women's rights movement. Instead, the movement has made us more aware of the dynamics of our gendered thinking. Despite this awareness of the need for gender-sensitive policies and practices, however, there is little being done to address the lack of a more gender balanced history.

Since I have been old enough to understand the importance of International Women's Rights Day, I have always asked myself one question. Will today make a difference? When looking holistically at our history over the past 100 years, it would be safe to say that International Women's Day, when it was focussed on the establishment of a woman's right to vote, did make a difference, but its fractured focus may now handicap it further if a unified history is not created and understood. A complicated problem can be reduced simply then: I cannot be a leader if I do not understand what makes an effective woman leader, and if I do not have the history I need to learn that. Maybe that's what the next 100 years of women's activism should be... the creation of a sustainable history that teaches women how to lead in ways that do not emulate masculine models and gives women the opportunities to learn from other women who had achieved power and control over their own lives and futures.

Photo: Clara Zetkin
Credit: AKG
Rider: This article originally published for the Africa Alliance of YMCA's website