Heritage is, even in the twenty-first century, a very masculine domain. Not in the sense of the work done to maintain it; despite the usual issues of gender imbalance at boardroom level, many areas of the heritage sector have a reasonable gender balance in their workforces. Heritage is still unequal in the sense of the assets which are valued and the stories we tell.
Heritage is not a science. It is an often subconscious process of selecting places and things to be imbued with value and recognised as worthy of care and protection. We do this because they are part of a shared past – because they tell stories about the emergence of humanity as a race, the creation of a nation, or the development of great technological or artistic innovations. We love to feel ourselves linked in some way to the great characters of the past, and a huge part of heritage work is sharing our prized assets with the public, as a way of educating people about history and integrating them into a shared culture.
The trouble is, the great scientists, artists or politicians whose stories we tell are often male. If we imagine ourselves in another period of history, men can picture themselves in careers as knights or spies or outlaws; women imagine themselves gasping for breath in corsets, scrubbing floors or attempting to raise dozens of children. Those who do not identify as cisgender are often barely acknowledged to exist.
‘culture determines the way in which individuals and communities understand today’s world, and envisage and shape their future … we need to recognize women and girls as agents of change within their communities and value their achievements.’ – Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, 2014
Yes, the good news is that society has changed, in that women in many countries can now pursue the careers they choose (even if that pursuit may still be up a steeper hill than their male counterparts face). But, as the recent irruption of #metoo accounts has highlighted, our cultures have not yet overcome traditional beliefs about the role of women in society.
Heritage workers must, therefore, consider carefully what lies beneath the stories we tell. We select stories about famous and popular people to pull in tourists; those people remain famous because their stories are retold. Women who pushed boundaries at various periods in history are likely to be less celebrated, either because they were silenced for undermining the social norms of their period, or because later periods felt that rule-breakers should not be held up as examples for their daughters – which of course goes many times over for people who refused to identify fully as their attributed gender. Women are also less likely to have left traces in historical records; in Western cultures girls were not given the same access to education as boys and therefore are less likely to have left written source material, while the tendency for women to change names and homes when they married makes their lives and lineage harder to follow. If we remember this, we remember that telling the same stories over and over again limits the range of people we represent, and the range of inspiration and information we can offer to audiences.
No-one wants to deny the achievements of the many great men throughout history, or to cease to celebrate their work. What we need is an awareness that in Western cultures our history makes it harder to identify and celebrate women who have also achieved great things. It is up to those who work in heritage to demonstrate that women are not only the roles traditional heritage narratives allow them: wives, mothers, or princesses. Our children, both boys and girls, deserve to have role models who show that that boundaries can be pushed and that gender does not define ability.
There is progress happening. In the UK, Parliament Square will have its first female statue. In 2018, to mark the centenary of the Representation of the People Act which first allowed women to vote, the National Trust will spend the year having special commemorations on the theme of Women and Suffrage. This will hopefully follow its 2017 LGBTQ commemorations in raising awareness of forgotten histories and encouraging Trust sites and members to do research which counteracts the former cultural impetus to hide ‘non-traditional’ histories. In the USA (and increasingly in other countries), March is Women’s History Month, which also gives heritage a shove to question its gendered assumptions. (And no, there is still no Men’s History Month. So unfair, I know!) The Sheroes of History blog, and others like it, constantly work in online spaces to tell the stories which are not given physical space in museums or historic houses.
These are encouraging signs. Perhaps eventually, we can treat non-male histories as … well, histories, rather than an add-on special feature to make that little 51% of the world population feel a bit more special and included. For now, all we need to do is remember that men’s heritage is only half the story.