The Good, the Bad and Women's History

Each March is set aside to focus on women's history because women's parts in historical events are often ignored or downplayed in traditional history books and courses. This is in part because women have been excluded from "important" roles such as heads of state, military leaders, academia and many religious positions.

Histories tend to focus on what people in these positions of public power do or do not do. Histories that focus on women often focus on their roles in more private spheres -- home, schools, child rearing, or their influence over more powerful men. Of course, this focus on men's roles and power narrows our historical narrative to only half of humanity, so it makes sense for us to take time to intentionally tell women's part in the long story of ourselves.

Because we want so much to relieve the ignorance of the past we often only tell about the "heroes" of women's history -- those narratives of women who were triumphant, who did good, who worked for a better world. But just like men, women also participate in the dark parts of our history -- the parts we'd rather forget. And if women's history is going to be all of our history, we must be willing to hold all the parts of it -- good and bad.  

Hitler's FuriesThe book Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower works to bring to light a more holistic and complete history of women. When writing about women in Nazi Germany, historians have mostly focused on women's role in the rebuilding of Germany after the war, and few have taken up the topic of women's role in state violence and genocide.

Lower focuses on German women who were sent to the conquered areas to the east- Poland, Ukraine, Belarus- and the work they did there. She writes about women as witnesses to the Holocaust -- but also as accomplices and perpetrators of systematic violence that claimed more than 11 million lives. It is a disturbing book to read as it presents how all encompassing the Nazi party and its ideology was of every part of German life. The women presented in the book saw and often did terrible things to fellow human beings.

Have you noticed this focus on only the good parts of women's history? What do you think about recounting the bad parts as well?

Come and join us for a discussion of Hitler's Furies at the Northeast Neighborhood Library on Wednesday, March 5 at 7 p.m.

-- Faith Kelley