“History is written by those who write it.”
A sentence that seemingly means nothing and yet means so much. Ask yourself this, when you think of great historians who come to your mind?
From Herodotus to Gibbon to Buckle, the greatest historians are all men. And it made sense; for centuries men controlled everything: the office, the church, and the press. So, it is not far-fetched that they, too, were the ones who wrote history.
Women, people of colour, or basically anyone who wasn’t a straight white male was written out of history. They were even discredited for their accomplishments.
History is a powerful tool, people often forget this. We, as humans, are the sum total of our stories and that is what we carry forward to our future generations. Napoleon, the French ruler, who we only remember as a ruthless dictator, repelled laws that made titles a birthright. No one kept track of that. So, yes, those who write history choose what they want people to know. To be left out, or worse be written out, is a painful reminder that even today, humanity might never see all of us as equals.
History isn’t for anyone to nit-pick, let alone any man. It is not a dish we order at a restaurant, prepared and fed to us the way we would like it. Instead, it’s the raw and unadulterated truth that defines who we are and how we got here.
Women In Science & The Matilda Effect
Women have always had to seek a subordinate place in the household, society, and even in science. Marie Curie, despite playing a great role in discovering Radium and subsequently winning a Nobel for it, was dismissed as merely her husband’s assistant. He was cast as the real genius behind their joint breakthroughs. Daughter of poet Byron Ada Lovelace, who worked closely with mathematician Charles Babbage, discovered a way to program an engine in the 19th century. The scientific community, however, ignored her work and papers. It took them almost another century to have this breakthrough. Historians overlooked the work of countless other women, including Matilda Gage.
In 1993, Margaret Rossite captured this frequent phenomenon and called it the Matilda Effect (after Matilda Gate). Matilda Effect is a term describing the inherent bias that allows men to snub women off their achievements.
Female historians are now working tirelessly to fill the gaps in history and give credit where credit is due.
Over-Sexualization Of Women
There are other ways in which history has forever changed the portrayal of women.
The reason why the stories of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy have survived is that history found a way to over-sexualize them. It’s not common knowledge that Cleopatra was a poet and a philosopher, and incredibly good at math. All we know her as is a beautiful seductress with a fantasized body appealing to the male gaze. In fact, in 2016, women were only credited for less than 40 percent of history- who knows how much of it has to do with their bodies!
Central Park Belonged To People of Color
Central Park, undoubtedly the most famous landmark in New York, averages 42 million visitors a year. But there’s a part of the land’s story visitors might never really see. In the 1820s, people predominantly lived in lower Manhattan. The main inhabitants of the neighbourhood were white people and immigrants. The upper part of the island, covered in a valley of hills, was uninhabited. Around this time, the number of slaves was dropping, resulting in black people joining the workforce and both white and people of color scrambling for the same jobs. The rise in tension forced the free black people and immigrants to move up the island.
In 1825, plots in Upper Manhattan went up for sale and the entire area became a community for over 300 black people. They built houses, churches, and even schools. This area was called Seneca Village.
Over the next couple of years, worried about immigrants and people of colour taking over the entire island, the elite white people demanded a park. “To give lungs” to overpopulated NYC, the city dedicated a piece of land for the proposed development. This area covered Seneca Village and other smaller plots inhabited by immigrants. The newspapers at the time began downplaying who really lived there. Despite evidence that people in Seneca Village could have been prosperous, the papers referred to them as “mongrels”, “squatters” and even openly printed racial slurs. Soon enough, the city forced them to move out. Following their eviction, their properties were ceased and destroyed.
This is just one example of how people of colour were written out of the truth. History has not only been written in a reductionist pattern; it has been literally built on top of the backs of the forgotten communities.
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