Albany Times-Union: Biancolli: It’s Past Time to Widen History’s Lens

 

 

 

 

 

March 8, 2019

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A Women's History Month exhibit is installed in the War Room at the State Capitol on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

A Women’s History Month exhibit is installed in the War Room at the State Capitol on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (Mike Groll/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)

Should we hunker down at home, listening to the collected works of Clara Schumann? Watching the collected films of Maya Deren? Reading up on the reign of Chinese empress Wu Zetian?

Should we head out the door and attend a talk on women’s suffrage or a lecture on our societal fixation on beauty? See a play about Grace O’Malley, the “pirate queen” of Ireland? Hang out at a “Famous Ladies Tea” with Betsy Ross and John the Baptist’s mother? (If you’re up for any of that, see the info box.)

Or — here’s an idea! — maybe we should channel Helen Reddy, holding hands around a bonfire and belting out “I Am Woman” while dousing each other with patchouli. (I actually own the record on vinyl, a gift from my late husband. I do not own patchouli.)

I don’t mean to mock the intent behind Women’s History Month, which aims to correct the long-standing and egregious oversight of slightly less than half the world’s population and 51 percent of the country’s. Speaking as a female of the species, I appreciate any gen-u-ine effort to look me in the eye, acknowledge my presence and listen to what I say — something no woman takes for granted. We’ve all been shouted down in enough conversations with men not to seize the podium when it’s wheeled in our direction.

But here’s the thing: And then it’s wheeled away. Once April 1 hits, and Women’s History Month skids to its anticipated halt, we all go back to same-old same-old order of things, where, OK, women are rising in politics and cultural prominence, but XX contributions to the forces that shaped the world are still fairly roundly ignored.

Women were invisible contributors to much of history, which is precisely the status quo that the official March celebration is trying to rectify. But in trying to rectify it, the month winds up creating an attention ghetto – an overlooked zone that only attracts notice when the wider populace swoops in for a day trip. Lest we forget, March follows February. Women’s History Month comes on the heels of Black History Month, itself designed to mark the significance of Africans and the diaspora over the march of time.

Between those two months, a solid majority of the American population is covered like a blanket. (More than 57 percent of us are black, female or both — and that doesn’t even take into account biracial Americans.) But there’s an elemental and patronizing weirdness behind this urge to parcel out the calendar demographically, and I won’t even begin to touch on international (fill-in-the-blank) days. I worry that zeroing in on the One Designated Month makes it easier to ignore certain constituencies and histories the remainder of the year.

I’m hardly the first to make this point. In the Philadelphia Inquirer just last month, Ernest Owens wrote: “Attending public school my entire life, February was the only time of the year when I didn’t only read about black people being enslaved. … It’s time to hold schools, government, media, and corporations accountable by urging them to stop the pandering in February and recognize black history — and its people — all year round.”

As a few commenters have wryly noted, Black History Month -— also called African-American History Month — is the shortest of the year. For that we can thank its founder, Carter G. Woodson, who created Negro History Week in 1926 around the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). Women’s History Month traces its roots back to March 8, 1911, the inaugural International Women’s Day, which spawned Women’s History Week in 1980 and then, seven years later, the entire month.

These are all positive developments in the telling of history and the widening of its lens beyond the male, the white and the wealthy. But the thing about women — the thing about blacks — the thing about any group of people anywhere on the planet — is that we aren’t actually isolated from the rest of humanity. We aren’t things apart, our contributions separate from the whole. We’re a piece of history, not obligations dutifully checked off like Cheerios or toilet paper on some annual trip to the supermarket.

So last month, we recognized African-Americans. This month, women. The challenge, for the other 10 months in the year, lies in recognizing both blacks and women as contributors to society both past and present. We’re here now. Wheel the podium in our direction. To quote a certain ’70s pop song, hear us roar.

More Information

If you go

A few of the events marking Women’s History Month

“Granuaile — the Irish Pirate Queen,” with storyteller Marni Gillard

Where: Irish-American Heritage Museum, 370 Broadway, Albany

When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 21

Tickets: $7 members, $10 nonmembers

Info: irish-us.org; 518-427-1916

“The Suffragents: How Women used Men to Get the Vote,” lecture by author Brooke Kroeger

Where: Bethlehem Public Library, 451 Delaware Ave, Delmar

When: 3 p.m. Sunday, March 24

Admission: Free

Info: bethlehempubliclibrary.org; 518-439-9314

“Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women,” lecture by author Renee Engeln

Where: Bush Memorial Center, Russell Sage College, 65 1st St., Troy

When: 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 25

Admission: Free

Info: sage.edu; 518-244-2248

“Famous Ladies Tea,” fundraiser for Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County, featuring portrayals of Carrie Nation, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, Betsy Ross and the biblical Elizabeth

Where: Hilton Garden Inn , 235 Hoosick St., Troy

When: 1 p.m. Sunday, March 31

Tickets: $45 per person; $315 for reserved tables of 8

Info: lvorc.org; 518-244-4650

Women’s History Month programs at Albany Public Library

Events and activities at different branches:

“History of the Women’s Club of Albany,” 1 p.m. March 26, Bach Branch, 455 New Scotland Ave. Lecture by Patti Kopach.

Historic Women Poster Contest, open hours, through March 30, Arbor Hill-West Hill Branch, 148 Henry Johnson Blvd. Templates and supplies provided. Ages 6-17.

Women Who Colored Outside the Lines, open hours, through March 30, Delaware branch, 331 Delaware Ave. Coloring sheets for children, who will receive a picture book of women leaders. albanypubliclibrary.org

Contact Amy Biancolli at 518-454-5439 or abiancolli@timesunion.com or visit the arts blog at http://blog.timesunion.com/localarts

National History Day contestants, please read this before you contact me.

The Suffragents won the Gold Medal in US History in the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards and was a finalist for the 2018 Sally and Morris Lasky Prize, presented by the Center for Political History.  See Summer Camp Newsletters” and Facebook posts from book-related appearances. Reviews, notices, and articles about my books are under their titles here. My articles are here.

Upcoming 2019: October 17: Suffragents Panel, National Archives, Washington DC.

Upcoming 2020: January 30: Learning in Retirement Program at Iona College. March 27 Ephemera Society of America, 40th annual conference, Old Greenwich CT. June 4-6Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),”  Université de Lausanne (Switzerland).

Past 2019: September 23: January 29: Exhibition Opening Remarks: “Women Get the Vote: A Historic Look at the Nineteenth Amendment,“New York Society Library. February 23: Public Values in Conflict with Animal Agribusiness Practices,” UCLA Law School, Los Angeles.  March 13: The Suffragents,” Scarsdale Woman’s Club, Scarsdale NY. March 24: League of Women Voters, Albany County at the Bethlehem (NY) Public LibraryMarch 25:Judges, Lawyers, and Women’s Suffrage: Recognizing the Men Who Stood with Women on the Front Lines,” Gender Fairness Committee of the Third Judicial District, CLE, NY State Courts at SUNY Albany Law School, Albany NY. May 15: “The Republican Suffragents,” National Women’s Republican Club, New York City. August 7:  Panel, “From Emma Goldman to the Marketplace of Ideas: Marking the 100th Anniversary of Free Speech at the Supreme Court.” (page 40) AEJMC, Toronto. August 14: Webinar, National Park Service. September 23: Bentson Dean’s Lecture, College of Arts and Science, New York University.