The Next Turning of Women's History

Max Dashú

esie statueSomewhere along the line, someone decided to call the investigation of women's history "passé". Hardly: we've only just begun! A few decades of research has barely scratched the surface of this undertaking which has colossal implications for understanding women's status - and for dislodging the stereotypes about who women are or can be. A truly international women's history has only begun to uncover the cultural riches and connections that are out there to be found, in Indigenous orature, in archaeology, written history, across the entire spectrum of interdisciplinary studies.

The post-structural horror of metanarrative has all too often been accompanied by forays into high theory lacking substantial documentation, or testing against historical and cultural evidence. (A funny irony here is how retreat into abstruse theory loops back to metanarrative!) But neither the falsely authoritative voice of the bad old days, nor a narrow parsing of close details without a broader perspective, will get us where we need to go. What we need is more a provisional drafting of patterns and relationships.

A global women's history requires mapping out disregarded knowledge and distorted lozen interpretation -- examining interlocking axes of oppression, resistance, cultural hybridity and reinventions. Scanning the cultural record for direct testimony, we broaden and shift our vision of women’s history and heritages. We can identify female spheres of power in specific cultures, and note patterns of women's authority, whether economic or spiritual or sociopolitical, that repeat over regions or internationally. Especially valuable is the much-overlooked testimony of Indigenous oral tradition, and the necessity of decolonizing knowledge. Investigation of how codes of domination and subordination become embedded into culture is an important pillar of this research. More >

korean drummers Using images to teach female cultural heritages is a way to make the history more accessible, and to expand students' perceptions of the range of human experience and culture. Broken schools and the bias of market-driven mass media have resulted in an almost total ignorance about the range of female histories and heritages. We all have a right to a history that is meaningful, useful, and liberatory. Yet the idea persists that historical knowledge must somehow be the sole preserve of academic specialists; that high theory supersedes examination of archaeology, history, orature, to see what might emerge. The full cultural record needs to be taken out of sequestration and shared widely, so that women of all backgrounds can experience it, connect with an expanded sense of their own possibilites, and draw their own meanings from it.

Jeanette Hachette of BeavaisLooking at those female spheres of power does not mean disregarding evidence of structural male dominance, which can often co-exist with them. But patriarchal structures might better be considered as layers of accretions that were created in historical processes, rather than as transhistorical inevitabilities. Even matrilineal societies can't be understood outside of historical context. It's important to consider multiple factors, such as matrilocality or trends toward patrilocality, male headship, female fidelity, or class rank.

minangkabauwomenAn interdisciplinary women's history is not a final, authoritative narrative, but a questioning assemblage of information that foregrounds the common woman - and begins to remedy the longstanding omission of Indigenous women - within a historical landscape of interacting peoples and cultures, female spheres of power, mother-right and patriarchies, classes, conquests, colonizations, and strategies of survival and resistance.


Questions and dialogues emerge, as womenMachi leading a Nguillatun ceremony, Chile increase our understanding of where we stand in the larger global picture. How would our lives change if we could witness the full expanse of female power and achievement? the lodge-building mothers, food providers, foragers and farmers and fishers, the mother-tech inventors of biochemical technologies of cooking, leavening, smoking, drying; the weavers and potters and painters of cosmic signs, the culture-makers; the female elders, ceremonial leaders, seers, and medicine women; the rebels, warriors, liberators, and change-makers. We still have so much to learn.

Visual presentations featured in 2014:

About Max Dashú

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