It’s All in the Past

The thesis, famously, of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

In other words, independence and opportunity are necessary for women to realize their full creative potential, and this fact accounts for the historical dearth of women authors. She also speaks, however, of another problem that faced early female writers, namely that “they had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help… it is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure.”

Woolf felt that it is essential for female writers to have a history, a tradition, and to be aware of it. I will take that a step further and say that all women already have a history and a tradition, and that they need to be aware of it. Woolf states, so truly, that “we think back through our mothers if we are women.” Women must know their history.

But why, you might be asking, is it so essential for women to know their history? Why is this still relevant? Feminism is about the future, about changing the world; so, why do we have to go backwards?

I posit, in fact, that we cannot change the world unless we go backwards. We’re never going to be able to combat the bad elements of our society if we don’t know where they came from and why they’re in place. We can’t effect change if we don’t understand the change that has already happened. GEMS, for example, is able to fight the stigmatization of trafficked girls because they know where this stigma comes from and why it’s so pervasive. They can implement smart strategies like emphasizing these girls’ youth, physical and psychological inability to escape their pimps, and how the system has failed them. The successful passage of the Safe Harbor Act shows how effective GEMS has been thus far.

A Suffragette March
Suffragettes march for their rights

As for history and the future of the movement? I wrote, in my previous blog post, about the Eliza Armstrong scandal as an example of public outcry creating change for victims of commercial sexual exploitation of children, or CSEC. History provides us with countless similarly inspirational examples for women’s movements in general. We did not receive the right to vote because we waited for it to be given us. We did not receive the right to equal pay for equal work because we kept quiet. Nowhere in the history of womankind have we advanced ourselves in society by sitting pretty. I can think of no better argument against political apathy than that.

A woman who knows this as well as anyone, Feministing editor emeritus Courtney E. Martin, recently wrote an article for The Nation entitled “‘You Are the NOW of Now!’ The Future of (Online) Feminism.” The title, which cleverly alludes to the second wave feminist organization National Women’s Organization, notes feminist history and the Internet’s place in it.

The piece outlines “a fundamental problem for the future of feminism,” namely, the lack of funding for feminist online initiatives, like blogs and organizations such as Hollaback!. Similarly, Woolf writes, at length, in A Room of One’s Own about “the reprehensible poverty of our [female] sex,” and the hardship that that meant for women’s colleges. Sound familiar?

Women’s causes needing money was a problem in 1928, and it’s still a problem in 2011. History makes it clear, however, that when women have funding, we get stuff done. The suffragettes got women the right to vote because, as middle- and upper-class white women, they had money and time to spare. Now that the feminist movement, happily, encompasses all races and walks of life, it needs funding from the outside; without it, it will become “primarily reactive, increasingly myopic, and elite (who else can afford to blog unpaid?).”

Women’s history is important outside of the world of formal activism too, however. It can help give women a sense of commonality, community, and sisterhood despite a “catfight” culture that tells us women are ruthlessly competitive and untrustworthy. The remarkable women who have fought in the past for womankind can give all women and girls today humility as individuals, and pride as a group.

The Author at SlutWalk NYC
A proud feminist since 1994. Photo cred:

I will offer myself as an example of the positive powers of women’s history. As a small child, I was obsessed with the subject. I read book after book after book. My school projects tended to be, and still are, on women and women-related subjects, from “Girls and Women of the Iroquois Tribe” in third grade to “Rape as a Weapon of War” in eleventh. I have always known my history as a female, always loved it, and always been proud, a luxury that Woolf only dreamed of for her stifled literary women.

History helps me in every way. My knowledge of women of the past, for example, is the biggest weapon I personally have against the media’s ridiculous standards of beauty, and my knowledge of women who have successfully rejected these standards gives me inspiration. My awareness of the amazing things women have accomplished throughout history lets me know that the sky’s the limit, as Woolf wished the women who came before her might have known. I believe that knowledge of women’s history can help all girls achieve this viewpoint.

bell hooks, in her essay “Feminist Education for Critical Consciousness”, explains that we “must necessarily think of feminist education as significant in the lives of everyone.” While there are certain women, largely feminist activists and academics, who will know women’s history no matter what, most people are not going to seek the information out for themselves. This is why “we need feminist studies that is community-based.” Women don’t need to think of themselves as “activists” or even identify as “feminists” to be active; they just need “an understanding of the myriad ways feminism has positively changed all our lives” and the tools and information they need to be a force for good in the world.

Our society is not perfect, and unfortunately, the political manifests itself in the personal. Girls feel pressured into sexual encounters they don’t want or feel ready for because society teaches women that it’s okay to submit sexually to men. Women face discrimination in the workplace because we live in a society that feels, all too often, that that’s acceptable. These are important battles, and an important and underutilized army is everyday women.

Virginia Woolf
Make this woman proud.

If girls are taught their history and learn to have pride in who they are as women, and who women are as people, they’ll be able, eventually, to resist unwanted advances without discomfort and enjoy being sexually active, when they’re ready, without guilt. They’ll be able to reject and ultimately change media-imposed standards of beauty. They’ll have the strength to pursue any career they want and the wisdom to ignore those who say they can’t.

Virginia Woolf makes a similar plea to women at the end of A Room of One’s Own. If we work for it, she tells us,  eventually, “when [the female poet] is born… she shall find it possible to live and write her poetry.” For Woolf, a female poet represented the future ability of women to live in a world where they could embrace their femaleness while being people as fully as anyone else, and where they were not held back because of their sex. She gave it “another century or so.” It’s been nearly 84 years since she wrote that. I think that’s quite enough time.

5 thoughts on “It’s All in the Past

  1. I love that you said “My knowledge of women of the past, for example, is the biggest weapon I personally have against the media’s ridiculous standards of beauty” who are they to make the decision, to decide what is right and what isn’t? This can help girls reach their viewpoint. Because now, women have precedents, compared to before. They is no reason for modern women not achieve their expectations. Our ancestors did it in the most impossible period, but now so many more doors are open.

  2. It’s great to hear that you are the living epitome of Virginia Woolf’s dream of women knowing and being proud of their history. Your blogging about women’s history and how “We did not receive the right to vote because we waited for it to be given us. We did not receive the right to equal pay for equal work because we kept quiet” and your own personal experiences “from ‘Girls and Women of the Iroquois Tribe’ in third grade to ‘Rape as a Weapon of War’ in eleventh” are both empowering and inspirational. Virginia Woolf would be proud.

  3. The part that i most resonated with was “Women don’t need to think of themselves as “activists” or even identify as “feminists” to be active.”

    I think people are so fearful of the word “feminism” itself that they feel they don’t want to become a part of the feminism movement. But by simply choosing not to watch shows like Bad Girls Club which advertises fighting among women and by not buying clothing from american apparel which encourages small-sized women, you are helping the cause.

    You do not necessarily have to be an outspoken feminist, but you can simply be a supporter by not not enforcing discrimination towards women in the media and other means.

  4. “We cannot change the world unless we go backwards…”––very true. One of the biggest mottos of our society is that we learn from our mistakes. I have been hearing this ever since I could talk. If I did something that I wasn’t supposed to, I had to suffer the consequences and I would never do it again. Same goes for any movement. Let’s face it, our country’s past is filled with millions of mistakes (some bigger than others) and we are forced to learn from them. I’m sure that our feminist mothers (Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Stanton, Margaret Sanger, bell hooks, etc.) didn’t always get it right. In order to connect with the public and effectively send out their message, they had the try things out, see what worked and make mistakes. Mistakes = Progress.

  5. Your blog post made me think of women’s history and its importance and relevance today in a completely different light. When you said, “History helps me in every way. My knowledge of women of the past, for example, is the biggest weapon I personally have against the media’s ridiculous standards of beauty, and my knowledge of women who have successfully rejected these standards gives me inspiration,” I had a realization. I always thought that women’s history should be taught just because it was the right thing to do. Just like I as a Latina should have the right to learn about my culture, women should have the resources to learn about their history. Now I can also see how learning about women’s history can be empowering and inspirational, especially to combat today’s harmful messages about what women should and should not be or do.

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