What does that mean? Women who openly display their power,
knowledge, and skill, receiving public recognition and honor. But also females
who manage to wield power in societies that try to limit it or decree female
submission; where their leadership is stigmatized and their creativity disdained.
And women who resist and overthrow oppressive traditions and regimes. Who
break The Rules in defiance of unjust legal and religious "authorities."
Who pursue their vision in spite of the personal cost.
Women have determined the course of events and the forms of
human culture. We originated, founded, governed, prophesied, created great
art, fought for our rights, and for our peoples. These are the women edited
out of history, their stories omitted, distorted, and replaced with an endless
litany of men (and the occasional queen or meddling concubine). Our ignorance
of these women is greatly compounded by the omission of information on societies
which accorded females power in public life, diplomacy, religion, medicine,
the arts as well as family structure and inheritance. Both racism and sexism
are implicated in these silences and gaps.
So we need a remedial history that reconstructs the female
dimensions of human experience and achievement, and recovers the distorted
and obliterated past of Africa, the Americas, and all other regions neglected
by the standard textbooks and mass media. This will be a provisional history,
because all the facts are not in yet, and previous interpretations are being
reevaluated for gender, race, and colonial bias. More importantly, the indigenous
oral histories have only barely begun to be integrated into mainstream narratives.
Women have often been relegated to the footnotes of history,
and even those are highly selective. As Sandra Cisneros wrote of her search
for Latina sheroes, "We are the footnotes of the footnotes." Yet
the heritages of women of color, especially the indigenous cultures, supply
the most dramatic examples in recent history of open embrace of female power.
But even Europe looks different when we look at the common women and encompass
places like Bulgaria, Estonia, Corsica, or Iberian Galicia.
Women's history demands a global perspective. There's far
more to it than Queen Elizabeth I or Susan B. Anthony. We need to refocus
historical attention from the school of "famous women" (often royal
females) to encompass broader groupings of women with power: clan mothers
and female elders; priestesses, diviners, medicine women and healers; market
women, weavers, and other female arts and professions. These "female
spheres of power," as I call them, vary greatly from culture to culture.
Some of them, particularly the spiritual callings, retain aspects of women's
even in societies that insist on formal subordination of female to male in
private and public space.
There's a striking interplay between women's spiritual and
political leadership, especially in many indigenous societies. I'm thinking
of of the Evenki shaman Olga who was both chieftain and religious leader of
her Siberian village about a century ago, and the machis of Chile,
shamans who are deeply involved in the Mapuche sovereignty effort. But this
overlap occurs even in imperial contexts, as when the aged mikogami Pimiko
was chosen as ruler to save Japan from a chaotic struggle for power in its
early history. Another example would be the important role the Candomblé maes de santo have played in the African-Brazilian community since
early modern times.
Priestesses or diviners have often led liberation movements:
Nehanda Nyakasikana in the Shona revolt against English colonization of Zimbabwe;
María Candelaria in the Maya uprising against the Spanish; and Toypurina in the Gabrieleño revolt in southern California. In 1791, the old priestess
Cécile Fatiman inaugurated the Haitian revolution against slavery in
a Vodun ceremony in the Bois Caiman. Even earlier, the seeress Veleda was
the guiding force behind the Batavian insurrection of tribal Europeans against
Rome, and Dahia al-Kahina ("the priestess") led Berber resistance
to the Arab conquest of North Africa. And Gudit Isat (Judith the Fire) who
overthrew the Axumite empire in 10th century Ethiopia was remembered as a
religious leader as well.
Often this female leadership does not rely on institutionalized
authority, but on recognized personal power. The Apache seer and warrior woman
Lozen is remembered for her acts of bravery and her clairvoyant ability to
guide her people away from danger as they fled Anglo settler armies in Arizona
and into Mexico. Granuaile Ní Mhaille (Grainne O' Mailley) surmounted
the absolute masculine monopoly of military and seafaring enterprise to become,
through her pirate fleet, the uncrowned "She-King" of the Connemara
coast of Ireland, and the scourge of the British Navy in the 1500s.
Female boldness has in many societies been required simply
to defend personal liberty and self-determination, carving out space to act
in spite of patriarchal constraints, to become what the English called "a
woman at her own commandment." Agodice practiced medicine in classical
Athens disguised as a man, risking the death penalty then in force against
female physicians. About two thousand years later, Miranda Stuart used the
same strategy to get her M.D. As Dr. James Barry, she became Chief Surgeon
for the British Navy. Her subterfuge was not discovered until her death, although
she came close after being wounded in a duel.
This route of adopting a cloak of male privilege was followed
by countless female adventurers, including Carmen Robles who became a colonel in the Mexican Revolutionary Army, and Elvira Cespedes,
who practiced medicine and married a woman in 16th-century Spain -- until
she was denounced to the Inquisition and sentenced to a long term confinement
and forced labor.
mavericks were also active in the arts and sciences. The renegade nun Okuni
originated the Kabuki theater, from which women were soon banned. In Moorish
Spain, the poet Walladah bint-al-Mustakfi rejected the veil and marriage,
preferring to host intellectual salons and take female as well as male lovers.
Around 975, her counterpart Aisa bint Ahmad declined a proposal by a poet
she disliked with a defiant stance: "I am a lioness/ And will never consent
to let/ My body be the stopping place for anyone/ But should I choose that/
I would not hearken to a dog/ And how many lions have I turned down."
The most courageous women challenged oppression. The famous
Swahili singer Siti Binti Saad rose from the oppressed classes to make taarabu music her vehicle calling for social justice in what is now Tanzania. She
protested class oppression and men's abuse of women; her song "The police
have stopped" sharply criticized a judge who let a rich wife-murderer
go free. She seemed unafraid even of the sultan. The battle leadership of
a Pawnee elder saved a village from atttackers, and so she was named "Old
Lady Grieves the Enemy." Afterward, she taunted wife-beaters, telling
them to go after the Poncas who came to burn up the village, and leave the
women, who do no harm, alone.
There are many historical accounts of women warriors, and
women often fought to defend their homes, their people and their country.
However, although it is hard for many people today to conceive of such broad
female authority, in some societies women had the formal power to veto the
decision to go to war. The Cherokee Beloved Woman, in her capacity of representing
the women at the men's council, possessed this authority, and so did the Gantowisas
(Matrons) of the Six Nations (Iroquois). It was the women who supplied warriors
with dried food and other necessities, and they suffered the consequences
of war as well. There was a saying, "Before the men can go to war, the
women must make their moccasins." (See Moccasin Makers and War Breakers,
The Lisu people of Yunnan (southwest China) once had a tradition
that fighting had to stop if a woman of either side waved her skirt to call
for an armistice. Often this would be a highly-regarded elder. The skirt,
imbued with the woman's mana, symbolized the life-giver's power. A woman taking
off her outer skirt was also the signal for war or peace in the Pacific island
Vanatinai, where women were also the traditional protectors of prisoners of
Makers and War Breakers:
A Call to Action
by the Women of the World by Kahn-Tineta Horn, Kahente Horn-Miller,
and other Mohawk women