Halving heritage

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.

Rosie the Riveter
‘Rosie the Riveter’, one of the few historical images which celebrate women’s agency in an empowering way. (Turns out all it took was a global conflict and massive workforce shortage!) By J. Howard Miller (1918–2004), artist employed by Westinghouse, poster used by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee – From scan of copy belonging to the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, retrieved from the website of the Virginia Historical Society., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5249733

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.

Emmeline Pankhurst statue
Artist Gillian Wearing with her design for a statue of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-41330508

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.

2 thoughts on “Halving heritage

  1. I think what you wrote is very good.
    However, when you say that men in another period of history can pick their careers as knights or spies, that is not exactly true . Social class governed many opportunities, and who would have access to education.
    I live in the US. My Irish Catholic ancestors(men or women) certainly didn’t have the same opportunities as an English Lord.
    My grandfather crossed the ocean to serve in WW1 in Europe. He didn’t choose to do this. My father joined the Navy in the hopes of avoiding something less favorable should he get drafted.
    Just wanted you to think a bit more about men always picking their own story.


    1. That’s a great point Kate, thank you. Certainly socio-economic representation in heritage narratives is another big issue, and one that I hope to address further in another post.
      What I was really trying to say there is that there are historical figures presented as heroic or semi-legendary characters to audiences in heritage sites. Children particularly are encouraged to imagine themselves living in different periods – by dressing up, for example. Within these heritage sites there is a far wider range of male figures for children to identify with than females; in general, the men’s biographies in heritage sites show far greater variety and much more active roles, though I don’t deny at all that their agency was limited by their backgrounds.
      This imbalanced representation of how men and women have historically behaved risks encouraging outdated ideas about the ‘proper’ place of women, or underselling the capacity of women because it was not given the same outlets as their male counterparts.
      So it’s not that men in history were always able to do as they chose, but that boys interested in history have many options to choose from in their gendered role models, while women in heritage sites are often shown in more passive or sidelined roles, which gives girls far less scope for identifying with inspirational figures. I hope that explains some of my thinking more clearly!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s