Think.

  • Wed, 7, Sep, 2016 - 5:00:AM

Herstory? History? We need a new term to describe the past

Image: Old book bindings at Merton College Library / Tom Murphy VII / Wikimedia Commons

History.

Just think on that word for a moment. Other than a term used to describe events that have happened in the past, what does it mean?

Alright, so describing past events is pretty much precisely what history is. But it’s also this: past events as experienced by cisgender men.

The reasoning lies in the breakdown of the word itself. Think about it. History – his story. His. As in men. As in not women or others. Men.

How’s this for a realisation? The very word we use when talking about past events is sexist.

It’s true that, for the majority of the past, it has been men who have been the rulers, philosophers, writers, etc. of society. In other words, men have pretty much run the show – and have thus been the ones who’ve left records for future generations to study. Of course, we all know this has meant women have been oppressed since time immemorial, their accomplishments all-too-often glossed over as they’ve been forced into supporting roles.

That isn’t right – and we shouldn’t be using a word that justifies it. It’s not OK.

But is there another English word we could use besides “history?” Surprise, surprise: the answer is “yes.”

Let’s talk about herstory.

The breakdown is just as easy as history: her story – recognising the experiences, accomplishments, and lives of women who have come before us. Some womynists especially prefer the term “herstory” (a topic which Villainesse has covered before), in recognition of the experiences of womyn (how they spell women).

The word is an interesting one – and not exactly new, either. American poet, activist and author (among many other things) Robin Morgan used the term in an article for underground newspaper Rat titled “Goodbye to All That” in 1970. In the article, she describes herself as a member of a group called W.I.T.C.H., an acronym for “Women Inspired To Commit Herstory.”

Six years later, in 1976, American feminist writers Kate Swift and Casey Miller provided a fuller explanation what herstory is all about. As they wrote in Words & Women, “When women in the movement use herstory, their purpose is to emphasise that women’s lives, deeds, and participation in human affairs have been neglected or undervalued in standard histories.”

However, herstory as a term in place of history never really caught on beyond a select few second-wave feminists. The trans-exclusionary politics of some of them – and an insistence that “born-womyn” were the only ones who could use the word – also hurt its chances at wider usage.

The term could still catch on, of course. All it would take would be a single mention by Beyoncé, or a reference by someone like Michelle Obama or Emma Watson, and the sheer number of articles discussing herstory and modern feminism would likely provide more reading material than a single person could ever possibly hope to read all of.

Yet, unfortunately, the term herstory has a problem too: it excludes men and non-binary people. It’s the other side of the same coin, minimising the experiences and contributions of the rest of the human population.

That hardly seems more inclusive.

What we need is a more gender-neutral term to describe the past. Using a word from other languages commonly spoken in the West isn’t of much help, either – Spanish, French, German, Danish, Dutch and even famously gender-neutral Swedish (among other languages) all have the word “his” in some of their respective words for the past.  One idea would be to use the te reo Māori phrase tāhuhu korero. It would also be a great way to honour the original culture of Aotearoa.

We could also use an existing English word. In place of “history,” we could say “past” in all references, such as “in the ancient past, Cleopatra was the last Egyptian pharaoh,” or “the rest is the past” (instead of “the rest is history”).

Some people might question what might sound like a crusade against language. But isn’t it time that we recognised the achievements, experiences, and lives of all people, not just a small segment of the population that happens to have been the most privileged? 

TAGGED IN

  • Herstory /
  • History /
  • Women /
  • Womyn /
  • Womynism /
  • Language /
  • Equality /
  • Gender /
  • Feminism /
  • Second Wave Feminism /

Comments ( 2 )

  • Annoyed Kiwi's picture

    Annoyed Kiwi - Wed, 2016-09-14 09:56

    I am beginning to question the purpose of this article. Since it has been placed into the "think" catagory I will make the assumption that Ben Mack wants me to think, so I shall. In the title of this article the suggestion is "we need a new term to describe the past", I think that you have already pointed out what term we can use to describe history without using that term, the past. Alternatively, a quick thesaurus search has found that "former times, previous events, the olden days, the old days, bygone days, long ago" are all synonyms and so could be used within their place. Interestingly enough I have noticed that everything an account does is recorded in the "account history" if the term history is such an issue then why is the term used on this website? I'm also surprised to hear that a website dedicated to a political and societal movement is concerned about grammer. If gendered terms are such and issue to feminism then why name your website villainesse? If it is not, then what is all the fuss about? I would also like to point out that many terms in french are gendered with seemingly no reason for example, the French word for moustache (which for the record is just moustache) is feminine. The only reason for this is because of the ending, "gendered" terms are overall based upon the word structure rather than any societal reason. I will of course admit that there are some occasions where this is not the case and there is a specific reason for a worday to appear "gendered" but I doubt this is the case here.
  • sjrasmussen's picture

    sjrasmussen - Thu, 2016-10-13 08:10

    Some thoughts from an historian on the question: I think it's great that you are raising the issue of how women's experiences might be elided by traditional 'great man' histories. However, as an historian (and feminist), I think you are cutting the discipline short - there are problems of gender respresentation in history, but historians have done much to address these, and many of the run much deeper than what we call the practice of writing about the past. Firstly, on the grammar and etymology of the word 'history'. This is a word we have pinched straight from the french 'histoire', which is also the word for a story or tale. And yes, it still has 'his' in it, but those three letters don't hold the same meaning in French of 'belonging to him' - in fact, for the French, the word 'histoire' is grammatically feminine. Secondly, you have suggested simply referring to 'the past' as an alternative, but as an historian I draw a distinction between 'the past' and 'history': 'the past' is the dizzying, vivid, rich kaleidoscope of everything which has ever happened, the lived experience of people long gone, and as such it is impossible to recapture; 'history' is the limited reconstruction of that past reality through the use of the surviving sources - it is one step (or several steps) removed. I think it is important to maintain this distinction, lest we fall back into the old habit of seeing history as 'truth' or 'what really happened': most historians these days are deeply uncomfortable with such claims, and instead we aim to collectively present a plurality of interpretations with address different facets of past reality and experience, rather than a single, unified narrative. Thirdly, calling it 'history' is not the primary obstacle to the telling of past women's experiences. Personally, I think one problem which is easily overlooked is the source material itself. Most of our knowledge about the past comes from /written sources/, simply because this gives tangible form to ideas and allows them to be collected and preserved in archives, libraries, and museums. As Sandi Toksvig has explained of the Bayeux tapestry - we know about the men who commissioned and paid for it, because we have documents which record their names, but we know nothing of the women who embroidered such an astouding piece of work. Women have long been erased from history - blindly and unintentionally or actively and maliciously - but historians have, for several decades, been aware of this, and have been seeking innovative new ways to allow their voices to resonate across the centuries. For those who are interested, below is a link to a recent blog post I have written on the subject of history and gender equality, inspired by my own work as an historian, and by my attendance at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen in May of this year. http://www.ayli.org.nz/ayli-blog/2016/9/2/sasha-rasmussen-reframing-femininity-what-the-french-revolution-can-tell-us-about-the-work-for-gender-equality-hireahistorian Thank you once again for opening this conversation on this platform. With best regards, Sasha Rasmussen.
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