Veronica Zundel reminds us of the women in history easily forgotten, and says we need to hear more about those who spread the gospel too
In my early 30s, my mother dropped a bombshell. Out of the blue she told me something she had never told me before: that she was adopted. Suddenly the absent grandmother, who died in the Holocaust and about whom I had heard so much, was not my grandmother at all, but some strange woman from an entirely different country. Apparently my mother had intended to tell me when I got married – clearly by the time I’d passed 30, she had concluded I wasn’t going to! She simply referred to her biological family as “that’s all history”, whereas to me, it was a thunderbolt.
The way I was taught history at school made it seem to be all about kings (and an occasional queen) and their dates – and I have never been very good at remembering figures. But of course history isn’t all about who fought whom at the battle of where, and who won. There are many other histories that rarely get told: women’s history, African and Asian history, domestic history – which I personally find far more interesting. And of course we each have our own personal histories, with enough skeletons in every family cupboard to stock the whole of Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37). “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, said philosopher George Santayana famously, and our contemporary world offers plenty of confirmation of that.
Women’s history gets lost
Hubby and I have been avidly watching the latest TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the bestselling book by Margaret Atwood. She claims that everything that is done to the women in her story has been done to women at some time in history or is currently being done to them somewhere in the world. As the Taliban regain territory in Afghanistan and we see footage of women covered from head to toe, it is easy to believe that. And yet it is women’s history that so easily, and so frequently, gets lost – even when the women have made a considerable impact on the world. Every few days I see a post on Facebook detailing the history of some woman scientist and her discoveries, and I think: “Why have I not heard of this woman?” Is it that women are deliberately erased from accounts of great discoveries, or simply that when history is written (largely by men) they are simply not seen as significant?
Take the glamorous (and Austrian Jewish) film star Hedy Lamarr, once labelled the most beautiful woman in the world but now barely remembered even as an actress. How many people know that during the Second World War she invented the frequency-hopping technology that prevented enemy ships from jamming torpedo guidance signals? Today, this technology forms the basis of modern Wi-Fi. A recent film about her, Bombshell, tells her story, but it never got beyond art house cinemas.
There are countless other examples, such as Rosalind Franklin, whose work was crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA. However, she is rarely mentioned alongside her colleagues Crick and Watson, and she did not share in their Nobel Prize. Cecilia Payne discovered that stars were made mainly of hydrogen and helium, but retracted her thesis when it was rejected by her supervisor. Did you know that Florence Nightingale, the romanticised ‘Lady with the Lamp’, basically invented the pie chart to communicate her findings about infection rates? Why is she remembered as a nurse and not as a statistician? And who speaks nowadays of Octavia Hill, pioneer of social housing as well as a founder of the National Trust?
Pioneering Christian women
So what should we do to recover and preserve these forgotten histories, as well as those of obscure figures, such as Hannah Cullwick, below-stairs servant and secret wife of eccentric Victorian diarist Arthur Munby? He encouraged her to keep a diary of her back-breaking daily drudgery – that is now an invaluable piece of social history. And what of all the Christian women who went, often alone and with no support, to care for and take the good news to the poor and forgotten around the world?
I’m a big fan of historian Lucy Worsley as well as Janina Ramirez, Bettany Hughes and other female TV historians. I notice that in their programmes, when they speak to experts in particular fields, they far more often choose women to interview than the male historians do. Is it just that we need more women historians (not to mention biblical scholars who can recover the lost women of the Bible)? I think that’s a start. But we also need to keep asking the question: “Where are the women?” when we hear stories of our national or Church history. We need more Christian writers to write books telling the stories of historic women who spread the gospel and furthered our understanding of the world and of the kingdom of God. And, above all, we need to find a way of persuading men to read them.