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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM

Do Well Behaved Women Make History?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 21, 2010

            I know what some of you may be saying: “Why celebrate women’s history? Why celebrate history at all? Why bother with it at all—when there are so many more interesting and important and relevant things we could be discussing? Why take our time with this?”


            I really think the world probably can be divided between those who like history, and those who don’t. And I know that there are a lot who don’t, who think it’s boring, and irrelevant, and dry as dust.


            Why is this so? I often ask myself (and other people who enjoy the study of history) that question. Why do so many people attach the B-word (“Boring.”) to even the thought of delving into consideration of past people and events?


            First of all, of course, we can blame the teachers (they’re always such handy scapegoats): I think a lot of the problem has to do with the ways in which we’ve been taught history, most of us, down through the generations. Tell me: What can be more (yes) boring than the memorization of lots and lots of unrelated dates from out of the past—seemingly irrelevant details about the life of this or that dead guy (almost always a guy; usually a white dead guy; and good chance that it’s a rich or powerful dead guy, at that).


            History, as it was usually presented to us in school, was about stuff that had already happened, done by a bunch of people who had already lived, who didn’t care about us, and about whom, then, we should have no reason to care. So why bother with it, then?


            The fact of the matter is that even schools don’t bother with history all that much any more. When budgetary considerations required the state board of education to pare down its requirements for the MCAS test, guess which subject got axed (or, rather, “indefinitely delayed”)? History, of course. And what’s on the MCAS is what gets taught in the Commonwealth, by and large.  Over the years, too, history departments have often been merged with geography and the social sciences, with courses on economics and sociology and psychology and even sex education; so even in “history” class, you’re probably not getting that much history. More and more, a knowledge of history has become looked upon not as something that everyone should have (as part of a solid educational foundation), but as a specialized, esoteric pursuit, as a kind of intellectual hobby, right up there with basket weaving or scuba diving.


            History also is devalued in our society because, frankly, it doesn’t sell. (I know that from bitter experience.) Go into the young people’s department of one of the really big bookstores in the area (a place like Borders or Barnes and Noble) are check out the offerings in the area of history, and what will you find? Maybe a single shelf, with a mere handful of titles—amidst all those thousands and thousands of books. You’ll find, maybe, a few titles about African American History (with a couple of different books about Martin Luther King, Jr., probably). You’ll find, maybe, a book or two about the American Revolution; maybe a couple about the Civil War; there might even be a title or two about World War Two. Look at the section marked “Biographies” for young people and who do you find (besides Martin Luther King)? Mostly rock stars and sports figures (hardly underexposed groups elsewhere in our culture). I’m sorry, but there’s something wrong with a society that has space on its bookshelves for a biography of Miley Cyrus, but not one of Eleanor Roosevelt!


            It’s a devious Catch-22: Young people won’t become interested in history unless they’re exposed to interesting, well-written histories of important people and events. But these won’t sell/em> (and that’s what determines shelf space, after all: what’s going to sell) because kids “aren’t interested” in history. While I’ve known a number of people who have discovered the joys of history later in their lives, it’s certainly an easier process (not to mention a more meaningful one) if we can instill a lifelong love of history into children from an early age.

            If history is presented as the study of the past alone, it will never interest more than a select few (the way that any antiquarian study—whether it’s of old glassware or of old trading cards or of old military memorabilia-- interests only those with a particular curiosity in the subject at hand). In order to engage people (of any age) history has to be shown as something we live right now, in our own time/em>. We are all living history, so we are all historians. We are all inheritors of a garment of history whose origins extend far back before recorded time.

            We did not create ourselves out of nothing. We are, rather, products of a long process of historical evolution; we are each products of a complex concoction—an often strange cocktail-- of nature and nurture—influences, cultures, choices made by those who came before long before us. Whether we are interested observers of life or not—whether we say we care about history or not—we’re still children of history nonetheless.


            As the great historian Gerda Lerner has written:


            “All human beings are practicing historians. As we go through life we present ourselves to others through our life story; as we grow and mature, we change that story through different interpretations and different emphases. We stress different events as having been important at different times in our life history, and, as we do, we give those events new meanings. People do not think of this as ‘doing history’; they engage in it often without special awareness. We live our lives; we tell our stories. It is as natural as breathing.”


            History will have its way with us, whether we are engaged observers or not.


            But certainly, there are gifts to be gained by feeling ourselves active participants in the historical process, and not just passive non-observers.


            That’s because history is about The Story/em>—my story, your story, our common human story. Each of us lives an epic upon this Earth—a living drama, sometimes a tragedy; more often than we realize, perhaps, a divine comedy—rich enough through the acts of any of our lives to rival Shakespeare. Remembering our history—remembering that each of our stories is part of the great sweep of history—reminds us of how powerful (and how important) each of our lives is. It reminds us not to give away our power, then, but to claim it, to own it, to take our stand and make our music in the great symphony of life.

            History is our/em> story. That’s the main reason, I think, it can’t be seen as only his-story, if women are to be included; or as only a white-story, if people of color are to be included; or as only a rich-man’s-story, if the rest of us who aren’t rich men are to be included. In order truly to be our story­—something alive, something with real worth, right now, to all of us—all voices have to be heard, and all stories need to told, and all names have to be spoken.

            In words with which I can certainly identify, Gerda Lerner also writes:


            “I have a German name which is unpronounceable by English speakers and thus is inevitably mispronounced. I accepted that mispronunciation as the proper form of address for me, came to use it myself and have done so for fifty years. I became aware of the disjunction only when I spent some time in German-speaking countries and heard my name pronounced correctly. Each time that happened, it gave me pleasure. That made me realize that it pained me that my own children, my husband, my best friends could never really pronounce my name. I had buried that pain and refused to acknowledge it. It was, so I thought, a trivial matter. I no longer think so...”


            Our lives—small and insignificant as they might be—are not “trivial matters”—and our personal histories—our own individual stories—are not trivial either.


            But for so many years, almost all written history was by men, about actions which were important to men, about the accomplishments of men. Women’s lives—women’s history—went virtually ignored. Throughout the twelve years of public school history which most of us endured, women were barely mentioned, at all. A study back in 1979 (when everyone still had to take history in school) showed that for every 700 pages about men in every high school text book, there were only 14 pages about women.


            To continue to ignore the roles women have played in history is to live a lie. It is to live in the shadow of an inaccurate, incorrect, skewed version of our true story. It is to be ignorant of our own past. It is not to know how to pronounce our own name.


            The great epic of human history is just not complete without women’s history. If our story is incomplete, then we are not complete; we are not whole; we are not true to our full humanity.


            Somewhere in Africa/st1:place>, perhaps 40,000 years ago, a woman appeared who looked pretty much like us. She walked upright and had a high forehead, a large brain, and not nearly as much body hair as her primate ancestors. She spoke a language and used tools. She was—for the first time—a fully human being.

            She and her mate were the original homo sapiens—/i>the first modern man and woman, products of millions of years of evolution. At first, before weapons to kill large game animals were developed, men and women probably performed the same food-gathering tasks. Then, their roles—and their particular journeys—their particular histories—diverged. Their stories became different; not better or worse, but different—and each intimately connected with the other:

            Somewhere around 10,000 years ago (maybe a little more), in Southeast Asia and in Southwest Europe/st1:place>, someone—most probably a female—began to cultivate crops. The nomadic lifestyle of our earliest hunter-gatherer ancestors gradually came to an end. Communities developed in particular places to plant and harvest and store foodstuffs after they were harvested. The first permanent dwellings—homes—were erected.

            Then, in these more settled communities, men began to domesticate cattle and sheep and other animals and use them for plowing, food, and clothing. Women developed the art of weaving flax and wool into cloth. For the first time, the woman’s duties kept her inside the home, while the man’s took him out of it.


            Individuals started to accumulate private property. Those who had more crops or livestock could barter their excess for goods and services from others. The hierarchy of wealth and class began to develop. Soon, too, the man became recognized as the head of the household, and could claim his women and his children—along with his oxen and his plows—as his own property. So patriarchy was born. For nearly 5000 years, it would characterize almost every human society. Only in the past century or so has it been seriously challenged.


            But while women may have been dominated, they were not always subjugated. Their spirit survived. Their story survived. A heroic story. An inspiring story. Our common human story.


            Of women who ruled over dynasties, like Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt.


            Of women, like those in India during the Vedic age (that is, between 1500 and 300 BCE), who were scholars and teachers and wrote many of the great hymns (or Vedas) of the Hindu scriptures.


            Of women like A’osha, wife of the Prophet Mohammed, who helped to spread their own faiths. Of women, like the great German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, who were acknowledged as among the most learned and respected people of their time.


            Of women who, like those burned as witches during the Middle Ages, faced pogrom and persecution and even holocaust—10,000 women were burned at the stake for every man who was, according to one study. Women who remind us how much of human history has been written in blood, and how often our race enters only through kicking and screaming the next stage of its development.


            So many stories that women’s history tells. So many gifts that the great women of history give to us, yet.


            Gifts of hope. The hope of a simple woman like Rosa Parks, which reminds us of the numberless women (and men) of goodwill and sacrificial spirit who labored to make this world a better place. It helps us to rejoice that at least some of their hopes—some of their dreams—have borne fruit.


            Gifts of courage. The courage of a young girl like Anne Frank, who shows us how it is possible to live a fully human and powerful life, even under the most severe oppression. The example of a Susan B. Anthony, which shows us that being marginalized by society doesn’t mean we need to deny our worth or dignity as human beings. The vivid role models that women’s history presents gives us all timeless models of how to be human—and how to stay human—at times of great challenge.


            The full spectrum of human history is the encapsulation of our humanity’s deepest yearning and our highest aspirations. It is our eternal, immortal “Yes!”  to life, in the face of whatever darkness and despair the moment in which we live might present.


If we only have love,

We can melt all the guns

And then give the new world

To our daughters and sons

If we only have love

Then Jerusalem stands

And then death has no shadow

There are no foreign lands…


            The history of all of us is important because it reminds us that we have a debt to the past which needs repaying, and an obligation to the future in whose name our actions will finally be redeemed. Our history is important because it reminds us that each of us is needed to complete the work of love and justice in this world—and that we need to remain engaged—in our hearts and in our minds—as we leave together our own footprints in the sands of these times in which we live.



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