The north face of the Rotunda
Lifetime Learning

Filling in the Blanks in the History Books

Abby Palko


Written by: Abby Palko, Director of the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center at UVA


Here at the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center, we celebrate International Women’s Month, which grew out of International Women’s Day. Because International Women’s Day always falls during Spring Break, we feel it’s important to offer programming throughout the month so that students can participate. And, let’s face it, women’s contributions to our world add up to more than one day of celebration!

This month, I had the opportunity to spend some time with the current cohort of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Fellows with the Center for Politics’ Global Perspectives on Democracy program leading a lively, extended discussion of empowering women that ranged over topics from the pink tax and the gendered marketing of toys to the question of informing women of their rights in culturally effective ways. This is the second time since my arrival at UVA last July that I’ve been able to lead a discussion with the MENA Fellows. I’ve told both groups that I feel like a bit of a fraud, standing before them to talk about empowering women in the political sphere when I live in one of the 77 countries who have never had an elected female head of state. This is not false modesty, but rather an acknowledgement that the United States doesn’t hold all of the answers to the questions we face about integrating women more fully into the public sphere. In fact, this is a question that has troubled politics and personal relationships throughout our nation’s history, where attempts to import European gender norms like coverture have periodically been interrupted by the responses and activism of women like Margaret Brent and Anne Bradstreet, Mary Musgrove and Biddy Mason,  Jeannette Rankin and Shirley Chisolm.

The first question often asked when someone announces they’re expecting a child is, “Is it a boy or a girl?” All around the globe, the answer to that question still frequently determines parameters of that baby’s life. This is the value of pausing to intentionally focus on women’s history: we claim a dedicated space and moment to think about the roles women have played throughout history, roles that have often been forgotten, ignored, or erased.

Lego Ad

A popular feminist bumper sticker/magnet/t-shirt slogan proclaims, “Well-behaved women rarely make history,” an insight gleaned from a 1970’s article by the historian Laurel Thatcher. We can think about this from two different angles, as Ulrich explains: first, no one ever achieves fame for following the rules. And across much of recorded history and most of the globe, the rules have told women to be submissive, to defer to others, to make the private sphere their sphere, to be well-behaved. These two social values, being in direct contradiction with each other, have created palpable tension for the many women called to use their talents in a louder, more public, more assertive manner. The other way of thinking about this expression offers some more insight into the impact of gendered socialization on women: those women who do achieve fame, who do “make history,” have typically done so precisely by “misbehaving” or by asserting their right to follow a more masculine set of rules: think of Boudica, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks, Wu Ze Tian, Valentina Tereshkova, just to name six. And culturally, we’re often discomfited by women “misbehaving” in a way that tempts us to sanitize history, minimizing the radical contributions that their actions offer. I find this particularly painful because understandings of “appropriate” feminine behavior are culturally dependent. What’s “unfeminine” in some worlds is commonplace in others, even expected. But this is also why we have so much to learn from each other: because these aren’t biologically based, we can decide how to weigh them. I have another bumper sticker in my office; it reads, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people, too.” When so many history books and textbooks have overlooked or ignored women’s contributions to the development of society and the human race, International Women’s Month invites us to remember what the other half of humanity has accomplished.

Thoughts on “Filling in the Blanks in the History Books

    Fascinating. What a great way to close out a month-long celebration of women! Thank you for sharing such great blog posts from UVA’s faculty. Always interesting.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *