History’s Lessons

“Can anyone name something big that happened in the 1920s?” My history teacher asked one day in class.

I wasn’t very well versed in the 1920s yet, I had only heard bits and pieces – so I answered in the form of a question: “The suffragette movement won the right for women to vote?”

“Women in America have always had the right to vote, since the very beginning. The answer I was looking for was Prohibition. In the 1920s, alcoholic beverages were banned nationwide.” My teacher corrected me.

This puzzled me, after all, I seemed to recall something about women being a pretty big deal. But I figured that my teacher was paid to know these things and teach things that were right, so I wrote down in my notes: “Prohibition was an important concept in the 1920s.”

I had all but forgotten that exchange for the longest time. The facts though, are on record.

Prohibition was the Eighteenth Amendment, the right for women to vote is the Nineteenth. If women had always had the right to vote, why did our politicians felt the need to add an amendment saying as much nearly a hundred years ago? According to Wikipedia, the 19th Amendment was introduced to Congress in 1878, approved in 1919, and ratified in 1922. That same year, Oscar Leser sued to stop two women who had registered to vote in Maryland because he believed that the state consitution limited the right to vote to only men. Leser v. Garnett is the name of the lawsuit.

My history book decided that Prohibition was the defining event that defined the 1920s and as a result, not only was my teacher uninformed about other events in that particular decade but so was every student in the classroom because our school book had been written in such a way that some events were highlighted and emphasized; and others were glossed over or considered less important. True, in the scope of human history it’s impossible to record every single event and study everything – but there’s a big blind-spot in human history.

Ancient historians were not free from bias – they would record only the facts they felt important and they weren’t above embellishing the facts if they felt it would serve their purposes and best communicate the spirit of the events that happened. Generally, the talked about the most important people and the most important sort of people. Women generally weren’t on their radar. We only know about the women who defied propriety, who broke with convention, who were really, really bad – few historians considered the everyday experience of regular women to be of note enough to mention what life was like for them.

Same goes for the Scriptures – the main characters are mostly men or are the women who are a part of the main men’s stories – like Jesus’ mother Mary, or Jesus’ friends Mary Magdalene, Martha and her sister Mary, whose brother was also a part of Jesus’ extended circle. There is a lot of things that went unsaid about women, and the stories we have in the Bible don’t provide us with very many clues. It’s quite faulty to apply what we do see as if it were the limit of all there was and will ever be as the role of women inside and outside of the Church.

What’s most telling are the stories we have that are in the centuries between then and now. Women became prominent teachers and leaders in their own right. They opened up hospitals and took in the dying. They rose up the ranks and challenged convention. They were remarkable – and most of their stories were considered too unimportant and too uninteresting to be written down. We only have vague reports of deaconesses being brought before leaders, half-remembered legends of a bishop who referred the men of his church to a woman so that she could teach them something they hadn’t quite understood. We don’t have the full scope of the contribution of women to Christianity or history for that matter.

We still are writing history, one day at a time. Now we understand that neglecting stories are invalidating the lives and experiences of men and women who went through extraordinary struggle to achieve something. I’d like to think that here on out, human history isn’t just a spotlight on one person, but a continuation of all of our stories – men and women together, coming to understand that our history is inclusive and diverse – it has it’s bright spots and dark chapters – but it must be taught well.


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