CLIO TALKS BACK: Why Women's History?

Here are some of Clio's favorite quotations about the importance of women's history. This topic was already discussed and debated in the nineteenth century in Europe. Since then historians in every country in the world (mostly but not all women) have made enormous progress digging out women's pasts.

The first quotation is from Jane Austen, in her novel Northanger Abbey(1803):

“…History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?”
“Yes, I am fond of history.”
“I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome.”


The second, published the same year, comes from the vicomte de Ségur, Women: Their Condition and Influence in Society(1803):

“The proper study of mankind includes the study of both sexes.” But, he added: “we must write their [women’s] history.”


A third celebrated observations comes from Charles Fourier, Théorie de Quatre Mouvements(1808); this thought had been developed by Scottish historians and missionaries during the later eighteenth century, but Fourier's rendition made it famous:

“Social progress and historic changes occur by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and decadence of the social order occurs as the result of a decrease in the liberty of women.” … “The extension of women’s privileges is the general principle for all social progress.”


The fourth quotation is from a Belgian feminist, Zoe Gatti de Gamond, who signed as Marie de G***, Revue Encyclopédique (December 1832). She called for a REAL history of women and better education for women. She wanted an historical resume of the condition of women in past centuries “which would serve to demonstrate the gradual improvement that has taken place in their condition: the study of the improvements realized in the past would allow conjecture on the improvements to come;” and finally “a clear picture of the present condition of women, on which one could indicate the successive improvements that the partial efforts of men could achieve, within the framework of the general views of Providence.”


A fifth author, Henriette Wild, known as "Henriette, artiste," published her observations in La Voix des Femmes during the 1848 revolution in Paris:

“Like man, woman is called to explore the domain of history. As in all other things, there is room for both [sexes] and both also have differing and specific attributes. The best will in the world is insufficient to advance certain works, and in those places where observation is divided in a fundamental yet imperceptible manner, how could it be given to a single observer to follow simultaneously two lines that are incessantly diverging from one another? This is why, for woman, history is a lie and why the truth will only appear once feminine observation and intelligence enter into it and, specifically, link it to women’s interests.”

And, she added:

“What! such things have happened and no women were taught about them, and they were not engraved in the memories of every young girl? Women, women! And you are astonished at your own fall and your abjection. And you ignore the means of your own regeneration.”


Our sixth witness is Jenny P. d’Héricourt, who published these lines in her book, A Woman’s Philosophy of Woman (1860, 1864 in English). Jenny was very clear about the fact that there was a sexual politics that affected all knowledge, including historical knowledge:

“Hitherto institutions, laws, sciences, philosophy [and history] have chiefly borne the masculine imprint; all of these things are only half human; in order that they may become wholly so, woman must be associated in them ostensibly and lawfully.”

Clio applauds the insights of these women and men, who knew already centuries ago that women's history was the missing element in our understanding of the past.