The Washington Post
Celebrating those who were 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. One count made about a decade ago found that some 15,000 books had been written about Lincoln. But it’s true that, for a while, political history lagged behind the new bottom-up 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 grown 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 percent of the members of the U.S. Congress are women, women make up between 40 to 50 percent 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.