Everything we remember is story. “History” is the memory of certain special things, which we all implicitly agree are more important than others. But our culture’s history—even in this, women’s history month—is a story that’s been badly, crudely, massively abridged.
Most of our historical focus is reserved for famous men, and the growing but still disproportionately small number of women who have managed to successfully compete against men in fields we see as significant.
We’ve left out most of the story.
We’ve omitted crucial factors in the equation of feelings, interactions and events that make human life possible. None of us can thrive, individually or together, unless we balance this equation. We must look past our usual concept of history, add what feminists call “herstory,” and learn to tell ourstory.
The masculinization of the past
What most of us have learned to call “human history” is about a narrow range of activities: individual acquisition, combat, power, domination, ownership, conquest. Most of the people who achieved these things were men—and not just typical men, but the most individualistic, the most combative, the least empathic. Many of the “great names” in history achieved their fame by doing things that, under slightly different circumstances, would have landed them on death row.
The history of war and conquest is certainly worth learning (as Seneca said, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it) but for every moment someone spends fighting or dying, there are years of being cared for, nurtured, taught, kept healthy. Most of that work—by far the bulk of the human experience, arguably more important than victory in war and commerce—was done by women. The herstory of the world is one of dauntless compassion, not relentless conquest.
Every entering freshman in my university was required to read Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece Walden, a memoir of the year Thoreau spent living alone near Walden Pond in Massachusetts. I think we were all moved and impressed by Thoreau’s experiment, which showed that a man can bond with nature in splendid solitude, free from the requirements of society. What neither the author nor my professors mentioned was that Thoreau’s mother and sisters brought him food and took away his laundry every damn day he lived in his “solitary” cabin. Put herstory back in the picture, and you have a much more complex and balanced picture of what it really takes to live in, and love, the natural world.
The omission of herstory from the present
This bias for history over herstory isn’t just about how we discuss the past. It’s very much in our present mindset. There’s a common saying you may have heard muttered by a hard-boiled detective or cowboy in a gritty sort of movie. It sums up the tough-guy’s “realistic” philosophy of existence. “You’re born alone,” he says, swigging his whiskey, “and you die alone.”
Excuse me, what? You may die alone, cowboy, but you were most definitely not born alone. At the very least, there was a woman present, and she was undergoing considerable inconvenience to make sure you made it to the planet. Her story (herstory) doesn’t leave you out—she was probably obsessed with you. But the full story is also about her, and all the people of whatever gender who helped care for your absolutely helpless little ass every hour of every day for years on end.
Until just a few decades ago, even social science and medicine were history, not herstory. For example, the famous “fight or flight” response, the result of hormones we secrete in times of stress, was considered to be the “human” reaction to danger or threat. In the 1990s, someone finally thought to test stress hormones in women—who, it turns out, have a whole different chemical brew going on in there. Under stress, men spike hormones that make them want to run or attack. Women secrete an additional set of chemicals—the so-called “tend and befriend” hormones—that make us want to run or attack, but only after we’re sure everyone has a sandwich and a sweater.
This isn’t just a female response. Studies show that men who are falling in love or becoming fathers pump out “tend and befriend” hormones as well. Kindness, connection, nurturing and love aren’t female characteristics. They’re human characteristics, and if all of us didn’t act on them most of the time, our species wouldn’t have become so numerous that we now dominate our planet.
Future history must include herstory
Speaking of the planet, most scientists agree that our focus on conquering, subduing, pillaging, and other “historical” things, if it continues unabated, will be the end of us. If we can learn to balance our personal and communal histories with “herstorical” activities like nurturing and caring, we may continue to live in harmony with nature indefinitely.
A Peruvian shaman once told me, “Give me a fish, I eat for a day. Teach me to fish, I eat for a lifetime. Teach me to keep fish healthy and happy, I and all my descendants eat forever.” This shaman wasn’t a woman. He was a very masculine man with a balanced mind.
Most women’s stories have been forgotten, and the women we remember often managed to do something generally deemed “masculine.” Instead of continuing to glorify this version of history, let’s take this month to celebrate the sustenance of living things, of connective relationships, of balance between the achievements that put us in the spotlight and the selflessness that makes us get up and sit in the dark with a grieving friend, a fretful baby, a dying parent.
Let’s not forget history or herstory. Let’s tell our story.
Wisdom is our story
As a college student, I set out to study the history of women in traditional China. Oops. There was basically nothing to study. Almost no Chinese historians had written about women, and because the language is so hard to read and write, virtually no women had written about themselves. When I traveled through China, I saw many children, but few girls—female infanticide was so common that in some areas there were twenty-eight boys for every girl.
Yet, even in this extraordinarily male-dominated society, philosophers had turned to telling our story. In what has been called “the wisest book ever written,” the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote:
Know your masculine side
But safeguard your feminine side.
Then you will serve the flow of universal goodness.
Serving that flow, which runs through all things,
You will never go far wrong.
You’ll become like a little child.
Every one of us was born (not alone) not knowing or caring whether we were female or male. All we knew is that we are vulnerable creatures in a frightening world, needing to love and be loved as much as we need to drive ourselves past hardships and obstacles.
This month, whatever your gender, connect with the tough, ambitious hero in you, the one who wants to save the world. And then, at the very same time, connect with the loving, life-sustaining nurturer in you…who also wants to save the world. By remembering to tell the whole story, as individuals and as a society, we might just pull it off.
This article was first published in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper.