The Women’s Museum: Feminist History is Everyone’s History

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Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 2015. Author’s photograph.

I am a feminist and a historian; I am also a feminist historian. Both of these concepts are still under-represented in museums. Why?

Although these terms might sound very similar, they are actually quite different things. The sociopolitical term “feminist” has many different definitions, but for me it means a real, actionable desire for equal treatment of all genders throughout the world – especially people who identify as female or transgender.

On the other hand, feminist history is commonly defined as an academic re-interpretation of historical events with a female perspective. This could include focusing one’s research on women from a particular era or phenomenon, or reconsidering a historic event or person through the lens of gender. For example, I consider myself a feminist historian because my research focuses on the experiences of female convicts transported from Britain to Australia in the nineteenth century. Although convict transportation has been well studied for decades, there is still very little research on female transportees, even though they represent about 20% of all convicts sent to Australia.

Finding women’s perspectives throughout history can be challenging. In many societies and time periods across the world, women were often prevented from obtaining the skills and opportunities required to appear in many written historical records, such as higher education, publications, legal documents, government and organized religion, or business affairs. These challenges are even greater for historians studying working class, colonized, or enslaved women. Yet despite these difficulties, feminist historians continue to offer new insights that enrich our understanding of the past. Feminist history does not necessarily seek to promote the cause of feminism itself, but rather to offer a richer, more balanced perspective of the past by exploring the stories of men and women.

Of course, there is still plenty of overlap between feminism and feminist history. Feminist history seeks to understand the impacts of women and gender roles in the past, while feminism strives to highlight the contributions and struggles of women in a gendered society in the present. Both seek equality: a more inclusive, balanced perspective of historic events on the one hand, and a fairer society today on the other.

Many people are still uncomfortable with the term “feminism,” even though they may agree with the movement’s values and goals. I believe it is for this reason that feminist historical research is still under-represented in museums and historic sites. Just as the old fallacy persists that feminism is only for females, the idea that women’s history is only interesting and relevant to women continues to hinder the telling (and funding) of their stories in museums. From the deterioration of a well-intentioned women’s museum in East London into a sensational Jack the Ripper experience, to a major all-female artists exhibition at Centre Pompidou in Paris falling flat with the press, many arts and heritage institutions still struggle to make feminist history engaging and accessible.

Yet this need not be the case: women’s history is everyone’s history. Women’s stories span nations, cultures, religion, class, race, sexuality, age, and ability. They are the histories of politics, economics, inequality, activism, injustice, triumph, violence, family, travel, and domesticity. Feminist history often gives particularly good insights into the personal lives and private households of the past, ultimately humanizing and deepening our understanding of all histories.

Women’s stories not only need to be highlighted in more museums and galleries; they also need to be marketed to broader audiences as part of our shared human experience.

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