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