March is Women’s History Month and it seems it would be best spent brushing up on our knowledge of significant female figures from the past.
A video produced by English Heritage to mark the month-long celebration of women from history reveals that, while members of the public can easily reel off a long list of notable males, doing the same for females is embarrassingly difficult.
People stopped in the street in London and asked to name three men and three women from history appeared dumbfounded when it was time to come up with three female figures.
Some even failed to identify key figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Emmeline Pankhurst and Ada Lovelace. One man even thought the latter — a gifted mathematician considered to have written instructions for the first computer program in the mid-1800s — was Kim Kardashian.
Queen Elizabeth I was mistaken for Florence Nightingale and Queen Victoria.
On the other hand the names of famous men from history tripped off the tongue, such as William the Conqueror, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill and Henry VIII.
A handful of people were asked whether they thought women had had the same impact on history as men. One pair of male friends said, “Judging by our answers, probably not.”
Another said, “I think they probably have, it just hasn’t been documented.”
“You can name more men than you can women,” admitted one woman.
Why have women been written out of history?
According to award-winning historian, author and broadcaster Dr. Bethany Hughes, women “only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history.” Dr. Hughes told English Heritage that it’s simply a practical issue: “Physically the stories of women have been written out of history, rather than written in.”
However she said times are changing and people are “getting more interested in the story of what it means to be human, as opposed to being a man or a woman.”
Dr. Hughes pointed out that it was actually the polar opposite in the prehistoric world: women are very present in archaeological records between 40,000 B.C. and around 5,000 B.C. It’s only when prehistory turns into history that they disappear. This is due, Dr. Hughes argues, to the expansion of civilisations when “muscle power is required” and “society becomes more militarised.”
Expansion and success become the key markers of achievement throughout history and women’s roles remain diminished.
On a more positive note this means we have so much to learn about the women who made an impact on history.
“For historians it’s our job to fill in the gaps in history,” said Dr. Hughes. “We need to actively look for women’s stories, and put them back into the historical narrative; there are so many women that should be household names but just aren’t.”