April 13, 2003

Herstory Should be History

"Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin & predecessor Richard the 2nd to resign it to him, & to retire for the rest of his Life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife."

-- Jane Austen, The History of England, from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st. By a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian

Comfortably ensconced Precariously placed as I am within the walls just inside the gates of the Ivory Tower, every now and then I am reminded that in the world beyond the narrow confines of academic history, the coinage of "herstory" still circulates as valuable currency. I greet each reminder with impatience and dismay.

The purpose of this blog entry is to argue that herstory should be history.

1. It should be history, first of all, for reasons of etymology. Quite simply, the term "history" does not derive from a running together of "his" and "story." Rather, the term derives from the Greek term for "knowing by inquiry," which the Romans rendered as the Latin historia. The his in the Latin from which our term history emerged (via the French histoire) did not and does not denote the third person masculine possessive pronoun. Not in Latin, not in French (where "his history" or "his story" is son histoire), and not in English either.

Having said this, I have of course said very little, which is to say, I have merely stated the obvious. Problem is, the term herstory works to obscure the obvious, and seems to encourage people in the misguided belief that the word "history" really can be broken down etymologically into "his" and "story."

This is no mere exercise in pedantry. As I see it, there is both a defensiveness and a defiance to the term herstory. It is a term that boldly announces something, a term that intends to make a statement. This it does through a pretended play on etymology. It is worth asking whether this play is effective, and whether indeed this play is even very playful.

2. It should be history, secondly, for reasons of historiography (or, if you will -- though I hope you won't -- herstoriography: but can anyone say herstoriography with a straight face?). The fact is, professional historians of women and gender (and even deprofessionalized historians of women and gender such as myself) do not use the term herstory, do not call themselves herstorians, do not talk of herstorical trends, do not contribute to the herstoriography of women and gender, and so on. Are we merely dupes of "the patriarchy" (another term that needs to go, but I'll take this one on in later entry)? Or do we have some good reasons to call ourselves historians and to view our work as history? I have think we have some pretty good reasons, which I'll briefly explain as follows:

First, though it's quite true that women are largely excluded from traditional history, it is not at all accurate to characterize traditional history as "his" story. From Thucydides on, traditional (or classical) history addressed itself to an elite male audience, narrating the great deeds of great men in order to instruct a ruling class in the art of politics. The authors and readers of this history had as little interest in the great mass of men as they had in women. Indeed, while the ocassional female ruler such as Elizabeth I could certainly figure in the traditional or classical account, you will search its pages in vain to find the story of Tom, Dick or Harry.

Second, the term herstory smacks of a special pleading that is no longer warranted. The history of women and gender is now a well-established field that is firmly entrenched within the academy. The historiography of women and gender, moreover, is both enormous and enormously rich and complex. Anyone who claims that women have yet to figure in the historical record has simply not done her homework. Are the past thirty-odd years of careful and creative historical research and writing by hundreds of historians of women to be dismissed out of hand, to be accounted as nothing at all?

Third, the term sets up a kind of "separate spheres" approach that can only contribute to the marginalization of women as historical actors and historical subjects. In my opinion, the point is not to create two separate (different but equal?) streams of history -- blue for the boys, pink for the girls, or what have you -- but rather to integrate our knowledge of previously excluded groups (including women, but I would hope not to the exclusion of other previously neglected historical subjects and historical actors) into the main lines of mainstream historiography.

3. Finally, I want to conclude with my own personal and admittedly idiosyncratic reasons for objecting to herstory. I am of course well aware of the fact that my own distaste for the term hardly constitutes a valid reason for others to abandon its use. For such valid reasons, please see points 1 and 2.

If I am not mistaken, the term was first coined by Robin Morgan in her Sisterhood is Powerful (1970). Now, I will readily give Morgan credit for the mythopoetic impulse that inspired her coining of the term. It was inspired, it was perhaps even a brilliant flash of insight. But it belonged to an historical (no, not herstorical, but historical) moment, and that moment has passed (see point 2).

When I hear herstory, I think of patchwork skirts, Moosewood broccoli forests and macrame plant holders. What I don't think of is a valuable research agenda that would make a meaningful contribution to our ever-increasing knowledge of the history of women and gender. The term evokes the issues and concerns of an earlier era (which makes it of interest historically), but without translating into the issues and concerns of the present (which makes it ill-suited to serve as a designation for present and future historial practice).

Finally, (and again, this is my own idiosyncratic opinion), for all its "play" on male-oriented history, the term is remarkably devoid of wit and humour. It's just not funny.

If we are looking for playful criticism of male-oriented history, we could do worse than consult the young Jane Austen's brilliant send-up of the dull, plodding history that she was exhorted to read as a schoolgirl (though please note that Jane Austen did not object to all male-authored history, and had the very good taste to appreciate the works of William Robertson and David Hume). Among the characteristics that Austen satirized was the pretence of impartial omniscience (hers was a history by "a partial, prejudiced and ignorant historian"), and the absence of women from its pages ("It is to be supposed that Henry was married, since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife."). For me, this translates. Some two hundred years later, it is still fresh, and it is still funny. Will the same be said of herstory in two hundred years' time?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at April 13, 2003 03:26 PM

Her, her . . . ahem, I mean: "Hear, hear." "Herstory" does smack unsavorily of the 1970s, and I think you're right to suggest that it's lost its bite.

My only question is whether it's not funnier spoken than read? For (an admittedly weird) example, the rapper KRS-ONE will occasionally--and, I think, playfully, though sometimes it's hard to be sure--either say "herstory" or overpronounce the first syllable (*his*story).

Even though "herstory" is normally a cringeworthy offense, this spoken usage generally makes me smile. Maybe this is because at these moments there's a sort of self-deprecating irony about it, whereas in other, more earnest contexts it makes me reach for my knitting needles.

All the best,


Posted by: Jason at April 15, 2003 07:06 PM

I'll admit that there might be cases where the use is ironic and funny, but I'm only familiar with the cringeworthy uses. And while historians of women don't use the term, it IS used by some women's studies professors who should know better.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 15, 2003 10:49 PM

I like herstory because it is cringe worthy, you see i dont cringe, but them i am a bloke

i wouldn't worry too much

its usage will always be obs. (scure, slete)

it will pop up now and then like teenage poetry

(moosewood ! cheeeeeeeeeeeeese!!!)

Posted by: meika von samorzewski at April 15, 2003 11:18 PM

You say you don't cringe because you're a bloke, but *I* say you don't cringe because you're not an historian.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at April 16, 2003 12:38 AM

Good post. But...

The usage "herstory" isn't necessarily a comment on etymology, any more than Mary Daly's rendition of therapist as "the/rapist" is about etymology. It's a pun; puns aren't necessarily about etymology. (Of course, I'm sure that some WS major somewhere has mistakenly claimed that it's a matter of etymology; but I don't think that's generally true of every feminists who's used the term).

At one time, "herstory" was an effective pun that made a real and legitimate point. Maybe the point is kinda dated now, but as a historian I'd hope you'd be beyond cringing at artifacts of historical moment, and try and credit them for what they meant in the time they were coined. (Do you also cringe at afros and portraits of Malcolm X?)

Lastly, I don't think anything is as witty or trenchant as a good Jane Austin quote, so that's hardly a fair standard of comparison. :-p

Posted by: Ampersand at April 21, 2003 01:30 PM

I think the Moosewood broccoli forest was an inspired dish. Cook some brown rice. Stick some broccoli in it. Mmm, I'm hungry already!

Posted by: Anthony Jukes at May 11, 2003 01:03 PM

I was curious to look up the answer to the obvious question: who was Henry IV's wife...according to the genealogy in A.L Rowse's Bosworth Field and the War of the Roses, it was Mary Bohun.

Posted by: Dr_Funk at May 12, 2003 09:39 PM

Nothing wrong with brown rice and broccoli. But I'm not wild about the "enchanted forest" concept: I guess I've never been one for food sculpture.

Good one, Dr. Funk!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 12, 2003 11:04 PM