An Overview of Women's History in a Global Setting

Marjorie Wall Bingham and Susan Hill Gross

Until recently women's history was neglected in world history research, writing, and textbooks. There were a number of reasons for the tendency to exclude women's history from much of historical writing. A few possible reasons for this neglect were:

  • Traditional historical writing focused on government, politics and war, and economics. The topics for discussion were often limited to conquests of territory, power arrangements, weapons and warriors, and the accumulation of wealth by nations. The actions of leaders were analyzed for their strengths and weaknesses. Usually the leaders, kings, generals and investors in business, were men, although not always. When women led as queens, elected officials, military leaders, or entrepreneurs, they received attention. The emphasis was on men in history as they most frequently were the government, military, and business leaders.
  • Throughout most of recorded history only a small, elite group of people were literate. Overwhelmingly these were men. Therefore, men wrote government records, travel accounts, and business transactions that are primary sources for the researching and writing of history. These male record keepers generally focused on the experiences and concerns of men.
  • The division of labor by sex was a prominent feature of most societies in history with women's socializing and work tasks often separate from men. Therefore, many of women's activities were not observed by men, even family men. Since men usually wrote the chronicles and kept the records, they recorded what they knew best. The work lives and social activities of women were often invisible to male chroniclers and remained unexamined by them. Also, the subordinate status of women in many societies meant that their work and social roles were considered less important and, therefore, less worthy of recording and analysis.

Now women are beginning to tell their own stories, although difficulties remain. According to United Nations statistics, about 125 million children in the world still do not attend school. The overwhelming majority of these children are girls. In many parts of the world, however, women increasingly are being educated, and in the United States a majority of the students in universities are now women.

New Questions
As women around the world are educated and become trained history scholars, they, along with many of their male colleagues, raise fresh questions of the historical record. They are asking questions such as: Where were the women and what were they doing at a particular time and place? When men were off fighting in wars of conquest, what roles did the women assume at home? Who, for example, defended a medieval European or Japanese samurai castle when the men were away? What were the roles of women in medicine and midwifery? How did women's work on farms contribute to the family income and wealth? Who controlled the family wealth? What were the restrictions placed on women by cultural ideals, such as modesty codes? How did women create opportunities for themselves while customs restricted their activities?

Finding answers to these questions provides additional information and insights into the past. A more balanced and complete view of history can result.

The following are just a few examples of the questions raised by a focus on global women's history.

  • Would the women of Athens in the 5th century BCE call the era “The Golden Age of Athens?” Why or why not? Were there class differences?
  • Did the invention of the printing press that spread new knowledge throughout Renaissance Europe also contribute to hundreds of thousands of trials and executions of women on witchcraft charges?
  • Why did the custom of footbinding, which severely restricted the mobility of many traditional Chinese women, not become a Japanese or Korean custom?
  • Why were some of the greatest writers in Japanese history women? What led to their success?
  • How did the custom of women veiling develop in some places and among some groups in the Middle East but not among others? If the Q'uran and Islam do not dictate the veiling of women, how did this custom become so widespread in some Islamic countries? How do these modesty codes constrict or enhance women's opportunities?
  • How did the fact that women in most parts of Africa were the farmers who grew the family food affect their status? Who owed the land they farmed? The crops they harvested?

Investigating the history of women worldwide emphasizes the great diversity of women's roles in world history depending on time, place, class, and individual talents. Students can benefit from the rich assortment of role models present in different cultures. What has been seen as proper behavior or the "natural place" for women varies greatly from culture to culture, time to time. Thus, life seems less inevitable and more within student's grasp to guide.

Women have been agents of societal change and have acted in many societies to improve the lot of all women. Worldwide women's history is important on many levels. It can help to better illuminate the history of humankind, which too often subsumed (and ignored) women's history under the umbrella of "mankind." It raises new questions that can lead to fresh research and insights. Women's history diminishes myths that women's roles were fixed and unchanging and that certain work was “women's work.” Because of the great variety of powerful roles for women cross-culturally, women's world history provides for role models for women and girls not always present in United States history.

Copyright © The Clio Project 2005