March is Women's History Month. BlogHer has been featuring diverse perspectives on the meaning of that all month long. My perspective, as always, is through the lens of the powerful cultural revolution that blogging represents, especially to women. Yes, you heard me: I called blogging a cultural revolution.
It's a revolution because it is literally rewriting history, particularly women's history...reshaping what history will be to future generations.
I've always loved history. To this day I lean towards both historical non-fiction and even historical novels. But when I think back on the history I learned in school, it was focused on three kinds of subjects: War, Government, Commerce/Industry/Invention.
I recently heard Ann Stone (no relation to Lisa) speak at Fem 2.0, and she would be happy (and able) to fill you in on all the women who have been left out of history, particularly when it comes to invention. She is spearheading the initiative to build the National Women's History Museum in Washington DC to fill in these historical blanks.
But I'm talking about something else.
I'm talking about the kind of history that documentarians and cultural anthropologists and sociologists spend their lives trying to recreate: The history of the our day to day lives. The cultural records that show how we lived; what we felt; how our societies evolved and responded and persevered...not as some monolithic bloc, not as just a bunch of individuals trailing behind whatever the majority thought or felt or did, but as individuals living under different circumstances and guided by different beliefs.
Such records are of deep interest to us.
Think about the popular PBS documentary, Ken Burns' The Civil War. What captured our imagination? What made the Civil War come to life for modern day audiences? The letters between soldiers on both sides of the divide and their families back home.
Think about the recent resurgence of interest in our second President, John Adams. Is it not the more than 1,000 letters that he and wife Abigail exchanged that has renewed our interest in both of them?
Think about WW II. Whose is one of the most most enduring voices from the WW II era? Can it be Anne Frank? For many of us, she is our introduction to this page in history. A voice we can relate to, who can personalize those long-ago horrors. Who can still bring a tear to our eye every time we read "Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart." And yet, pre-Internet, those voices were few and far between. They were not only lost to future generations, they were lost even as the words escaped lips, or the eagerly-anticipated envelopes were torn open.
Meet my Grandma. She married in her later twenties -- quite unusual for that time. My grandfather saw the way the winds were blowing in her native Czechoslovakia, and insisted they move to France. While his mother agreed to go with them, my grandmother's parents refused. Refused to leave their home, their homeland. So my grandparents left without them. After an initial miscarriage, my grandmother had my mom in France in February of 1940. If you know your history, you know the Nazis invaded in June. So off my grandparents went, again, just ahead of the storm, escaping over the Pyrenees with a three-month-old infant. They took a boat to the U.S., but not having the right visa to stay, they were detoured to South America where they lived until they were able to obtain the right paperwork to come to the U.S. and stay.
And, that? That is all I know of my grandmother's WWII story. Except that she never wanted to talk about it. Except that only shortly before she died she told me that she still dreamed of her parents at least once a week. Except that I know that in all her world travels, there were certain countries she never revisited.
My family often talked about taking her oral history, about getting it all down.
But we didn't. Her brother, my Uncle Paul, did not escape and spent some time in a concentration camp. One evening when he took me and his daughter (who was my age) out to dinner, I pressed him for his story. He, too, was reluctant, but being in my twenties and quite obnoxiously convinced it was my right to know, I pressed him. The story was long; it was like a thrilling novel. But that evening in an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side was over 20 years ago now. And I never wrote it down. And I honestly can't remember it so well anymore.
Shockingly, I only recently learned that here were similarly horrible WWII stories on my dad's side of the family. They grew up in the Philippines, and when the Japanese invaded there was terror; there was bloodshed; there were children, my aunts and uncles, witnessing things they shouldn't have had to. The older aunts and uncles saw more, and several of them are gone now. The younger aunts and uncles (now in their sixties and seventies) told my cousins and me only a few, fairly terrifying tidbits.
Even my mother -- who looks back now and says how easy it was to be the mother to three children under the age of 6 at the age of only 27 herself -- has a rich history I'll never really get to know in all its unvarnished truth. If life was really so rosy, so easy...then why did Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique "change her life"? (I only found this out upon Friedan's death three years ago. Why was she willing to sacrifice her marriage on the altar of this awakening? And when she says she fought the battles of being a woman in the workforce in the '70s, so I wouldn't have to -- what battles were they?
Their stories are lost. We can only look back on them decades later and try to reconstruct. We can never know what it was really like, in real time, in real life. And I feel like I have a lost a little piece of my own history...and that, indeed, the world has lost a significant resource as our elders die without us sitting at their feet to share their experiences and learn from history's mistakes...large and small. The day-to-day, not just the global.
So, when I get asked, as I did just this week, if women bloggers aren't really just "narcissists", I answer most emphatically "No". Most of us would write even if no one (or at least very few someones) were listening. Most of us are writing to capture our lives. But even if we are well aware of (and fond of) our audience, blogs are no more narcissistic than a Woody Allen movie or Erma Bombeck column, or Anne Frank's diary, for that matter.
We have an entirely different cultural record of the every day lives of women that we never had before. I think when future generations grow up they will be thrilled to have such insight into what their mother and grandmothers and aunts were going through as they lived their lives. And tomorrow's sociologists and documentarians and cultural anthropologists will be happy, too. History will never be the same. And I say "hooray!"
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