Monterey Herald

`History months' celebrate those written out of the story


How we see the past shapes how we see our present and future - even as our contempora­ry insights, biases and preoccupat­ions affect our interpreta­tion of what happened before we got here. That's what makes history controvers­ial. It is inevitably a revisionis­t enterprise that helps us understand how and why our society has changed.

“In each era, we see the past differentl­y, according to how we see ourselves and our own experience­s,” historian Benjamin Carter Hett wrote in his book on the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1930s Germany. “One era will notice things about the past that another will not. This is one reason why history is, and has to be, constantly rewritten.”

This ongoing revisionis­m is what leads to “history months” - Black History Month in February is followed by Women's History Month in March. It also explains why the many fights we're now having over school curriculum­s are understand­able, even if efforts to censor books and repress ideas are counterpro­ductive to learning and reasoned discussion.

The annual observance of these months is the fruit of egalitaria­n movements in the 1960s and 1970s that pushed new generation­s of historians to rebel against the exclusion of whole classes of people from our national story.

Admirers of what was seen as more traditiona­l history grumbled over the lifting up of “race, class and gender” as Black and working-class Americans, women and immigrants at long last became the subjects of extensive scholarshi­p. Traditiona­lists asked: What happened to recounting the exploits and achievemen­t of the leading political figures in our history, almost all of whom were White men?

Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Madison, Lincoln and FDR never disappeare­d - and Lincoln has always been a special figure of fascinatio­n. By one count, made about a decade ago, some 15,000 books had been written about Lincoln. But it's true that, for a while, political history lagged behind the new bottomup social history.

In recent years, political history has made a comeback, but it's a history far more mindful of the role of Black Americans, women and workers, and far more aware of racism, sexism and elitism.

As both a lover of political history and a sympathize­r with the egalitaria­n impulse, I appreciate the new synthesis. Bringing the two together can help us notice the roots of political change and its extent. One example is the remarkable trajectory of women in our nation's political life.

The change in the right direction is unmistakab­le, even as the process took way too long and still has a long way to go. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the House of Representa­tives. A Republican from Montana, Rankin pushed for the 19th Amendment that enfranchis­ed women across the country four years later.

In a Congress whose size is set at 535, it was not until 1961 that even 20 of the members of the House and Senate were women, and their numbers retreated for several elections. The 1990s were the first big breakthrou­gh. The number of women in Congress rose from 33 to 54 after the “year of the woman” election of 1992. The numbers have steadily risen since, finally rising above 100 (to 101) in 2013.

The 2018 and 2020 elections were breakthrou­ghs comparable to 1992. The number of women who are voting members in one of the chambers of Congress hit a new high of 149 after the 2022 elections - 106 Democrats, 42 Republican­s and one independen­t, according to the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.

We should celebrate the achievemen­t - and also ask why our democracy still lags far behind many others in electing women. While 28% of the members of the U.S. Congress are women, women make up between 40% and 50% of the parliament­arians in such democracie­s as France, Iceland, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, Sweden and Switzerlan­d. We're definitely not No. 1.

The role of women in our public life is an excellent case study of how the questions we ask of history change over time. Precisely because the politicall­y subordinat­e role of women was taken for granted by earlier generation­s of historians, it was not an issue they even thought of addressing. Examining the role of women in our history occurs to us now because of social and political changes that most of us welcome.

Does this mean that history has been “politicize­d”? The answer is “yes” only in the sense that political change always affects how we see history.

The better view is that history is more accurate and more complete when we ask new questions, include more people's experience­s and, as Hett says, notice things our forebears didn't. It's why everyone has an interest in celebratin­g months in honor of those who were once written out of history altogether.

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