Revising ‘His’-story

History, I have always been intrigued by the insight that it provides in understanding our pasts but also present-day selves. It provides worlds that resemble our own to alien and surreal cultures that seem only able to materialise within dreams, and tales of old. History is a place for learning, entertainment and escapism. However, this realm has become infested by the influence of the theory of great men. A theory that has led to a field wide state of amnesia and only the remembrance male the discoveries which has hidden the impact of any other gender.

Recently, I was questioned on who I idolised, in response I recited the usual suspects in my armoury of individuals I hold dear and ready for this question. Like asking a film student their favourite movie, every history student has a rehearsed answer ready to clap back to show some form of intelligence and use for our degree outside being a museum curator. For me, these included individuals such as the legendary Louis Zamperini through to culture challenging pioneer in anatomical knowledge Andreas Vesalius. In return I was struck by a question that left me contemplating my answer that as a history graduate, I take pride in. This question left me lost for words, flushed red in cheeks with embarrassment and shattered my ego that surrounded my tried and tested answer. So, what was this almighty question?

‘Where are the women?’

This question challenged a prime example of the internalisation of great-man history that is so often seen in tales that construct our perception of the past. A few days have passed, and after some severe deliberation, I have settled on three women. These wen have had a massive influence on environmentalism, sport, and academia.

Environmentalist Wamgari Maathai

Born in 1940, Wamgari Maathai grew up in Nyeri County within the central highlands of Kenya. Chasing a career in biological sciences, Maathai took a whistle stop tour of the United States, studying the University of Pittsburg and graduated in 1964. Upon returning to Kenya, Maathai became the first East African woman to earn a doctorate, gaining a PhD from the University of Nairobi in 1971. These endeavours only capped the tip of her iceberg of accomplishments. Maathai would later flourish in environmentalism after joining the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK).

In the mid-twenty-first century, the process of desertification crept down the continent of Africa and into sub-Saharan region. While livelihoods of the inhabitants of nations such as Kenya were eroding away, Wangari Maathai stood tall in the face of adversity and acted a political wall that aimed to challenge these devastating desert forces. Maathai planted the ideological seeds for a green revolution that has propagated and sprawled through politics inspiring a unique attempt to halt the processes of desertification. Maathai laid the foundations of the Greenbelt Movement, a cultural crusade that has mobilised thousands of Kenyan men and women into the fight against climate change. Through the creation of a green fortress, Maathai’s vision aimed to harness the power of trees to protect against the harsh realities that come with climate change. This movement revolutionised the relationship between the Kenyan people, the environment and fostered a culture of stewardship. Thinking outside the box, this ultimately culminated in Maathai becoming the first African Women to be awarded a Noble Peace Prize. This campaign is now rooted as deeply as the trees planted within Kenyan society and has resulted in the planting of 50 million trees rewilding vast swathes of Kenya respectfully.

Maathai working alongside children on the Green Belt (Source: Wangari Maathai | The story | About Wangari Maathai | Wangari Maathai Foundation)

Sporting Kathrine Switzer

A gruelling 26.2 miles (or 42.2km) slot simultaneously together to make up a marathon, a tenacious task that takes a persistent mind and resilient body to overcome. The marathon is an event that is littered with barriers that extend beyond the guard rails that enclose competitors on the streets of many major cities worldwide. It is an event that has been born out of Greek mythology and provides an accomplishment of almost mythical magnitude. Legends depict that this distance led to the death of Pheidippides, the ancient Greek messenger underlining the strenuous nature of the event. Legends like this bestowed the event with a beastly persona, not to be taken lightly which ultimately led to women being unfairly barred from running this race.

Defiantly, one woman entered the male dominated Boston Marathon in 1972 only placing her initials on the entry form. Hidden in the bushes prior to the start, supported by her coach and protected by fellow students at Syracuse University, 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer toed the line of the infamous race. Within the first mile on the rolling roads of Boston, Switzer was attacked by officials who maliciously attempted to haul her off the course. Alongside the need to overcome the mental and physical walls presented by Boston, Switzer had the added pressure of societal expectations placed on her due to her gender. Despite this, Switzer relentlessly powered to the end finishing 124th overall. Switzer had become the first woman to officially finish the marathon. This sparked an uproar of debates within the public, medical and political spheres that consequently led to the official acceptance of women in the marathon. Switzer had increased participation in the race through the true spirit of the sport, resilience. Due to the bravery of switzer in 1972 women were now allowed to race officially in marathons events globally.

Swindling Switzer being attacked by envious male athletes (Source: First Woman to Officially Run Boston Marathon Makes Triumphant Return (nbcnews.com))

Brilliant Elizabeth Blackwell

Medicine is one of the richest academic fields, it is forever mutating and alternating direction with the rise of new discoveries, diseases, and pathological dilemmas. Medical knowledge must maintain a constant pace to react to the ever-changing variety of new forces that look to harm our health while also predicting unforeseen dangers. From the rise of Galen to the spread of COVID-19, the influence of patriarchal structures has lingered within medicine. Men have been the centre of medical history, have directed the discourse, and even become household names. Flemming, Jenner and Hippocrates to name a few, roll off the tongue at any pub quiz and litter the curriculum of school textbooks. Yet despite this, certain courageous woman have punctured their way into this male-dominated profession. This was pioneered by Elizabeth Blackwell. Bristol born but American raised Blackwell was said to be inspired to pursue a medical career by her the loss of her friend who argued her ordeal would have been far less painful if she was seen to by a female physician. Even though Blackwell overcame the first of acceptance into a medical college, an unheard-of feat for a woman in the 19th century, her path to becoming a physician was not without obstacles. These included discrimination, prejudice, and exclusion within lectures. Blackwell was even shunned for defying gender norms.

During the trials and tribulations of her career, Blackwell was unknowingly creating an alternate narrative for the story of medicine. In 1868, Blackwell took the patriarchal bull by the horns by creating her own medical school in New York. This provided a safe place for the developments such as the specialisation of gynaecology. Headed by her newly trained sister, Blackwell’s school was ahead of it’s time, understanding the relationship between the mortality of women during birth and the unhygienic practises of male physicians. With a fresh pair of eyes on the ancient art of medicine, Blackwell pioneered her way through the profession and even published an autobiography in 1895 (Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women) which cemented her already engraved legacy on medicine. Blackwell’s influence on medicine is not alone and is not one to be taken lightly. Medicines saga must be revised to include the hidden stories of women such as Blackwell’s to highlight the prominent and inspiring roles they played in creating the world we call home and the profession we look to for protection.

Portrait of Elizabeth Blackwell (source: Biography: Elizabeth Blackwell (womenshistory.org))

I could have referenced hundreds of women that have had a monumental and lasting impact on the trajectory of our society. Unfortunately, traditions within history have cast shadows on the accomplishment of thousands of women, who have become no more than hidden figures, spectators and forgotten names in the tales of humankind. Blackwell provides a prime example of how women have been left out of the history books. Despite her influential impact on the cleanliness when performing medical treatment, it is Semmelweis that is remember. ‘His’-story needs to be revised, we need to uncover, emphasis and celebrate these women as they have both overcome the tribulations that have manifested in the tasks they chose to challenge but also the societal hurdles and expectations that aimed to trip them on their path to success. Furthermore, this article has aimed to highlight the importance of representation, representation is crucial in inspiring individuals into following their passions.