Why History Matters to the Women’s Movement

Posted: April 15, 2013 by extremehistory in Uncategorized

Why history matters to the Women’s Movement?

When Joan Holloway was formally asked to sleep with a client in order to land an important account on AMC’s Mad Men, my heart leaped to my throat. It was the most powerful reminder to date of the subservient and sexist perception of women in the workplace that occurred within my lifetime. Mad Men has made no secret of the blatant sexism and degradation that our mothers and our grandmothers faced not that long ago. Such a historically-accurate and emotionally-moving opportunity to explore the cultural undercurrents which formed the contemporary women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s, reveal’s an important role that history has in reminding us of the struggle of generations past which so easily can leave social memory.

We currently have a generation of women, born in the 1990s, graduating from universities and entering the workplace. They are negotiating a rapidly changing social landscape which has the potential to turn back the clock on many of the social issues hard won by their predecessors. But these young women were born into a world where many of those changes had already occurred. Women had been accepted into the workplace by the late 70s and 80s, many making major strides into upper levels of power and authority. Women also had more personal choices concerning birth control, abortion and social tolerance of divorce among other things. These young women never knew a time when women did not have these choices and options. They never knew a time when women were valued only for their body and their domestic abilities. They have never, in their lifetime, experienced a world in which they were looked upon as a second class citizen, with no power to change the course of their own existence.

Historical research, long valued in academic circles, but often devalued in the public at large, has an important role to play in helping us remember the hard won battles and sacrifices of those who paved the way before us. Making an understanding of history relevant and accessible through the popular media reminds us of what we have forgotten or maybe never really knew. I will never forget the first time I saw Ken Burn’s series on New York City and the impact of those photos of the dead women lined up in coffins on the streets in Southern Manhattan after leaping for their lives in the Triangle Shirt Factory Fire. Such moments of historical expression are revelatory and life changing. The film Iron Jawed Angels revealed the violence, struggle and sacrifice of the women who fought for our right to vote, a thing we so easily take for granted today. These collisions with the events of history, which make up the building blocks of our present condition, enable us to remember, reflect and interpret our world better. They inform our choices, values and priorities. They honor those lives lost to the struggle and those victorious in their actions.

It is through the long lens of recorded history that we pave the way forward into the future.

This is why history matters.

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