This weekend I was schmoozing at an event when some guy asked me what kind of history I study. I said “I’m currently researching the role of gender in Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich,” and he replied “oh you just threw gender in there for fun, huh?” and shot me what he clearly thought to be a charming smile.
The reality is that most of our understandings of history revolve around what men were doing. But by paying attention to the other half of humanity our understanding of history can be radically altered.
For example, with Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich it is just kind of assumed that it was a decision made by a man, and the rest of his family just followed him out of danger. But that is completely inaccurate. Women, constrained to the private social sphere to varying extents, were the first to notice the rise in social anti-Semitism in the beginning of Hitler’s rule. They were the ones to notice their friends pulling away and their social networks coming apart. They were the first to sense the danger.
German Jewish men tended to work in industries which were historically heavily Jewish, thus keeping them from directly experiencing this “social death.” These women would warn their husbands and urge them to begin the emigration process, and often their husbands would overlook or undervalue their concerns (“you’re just being hysterical” etc). After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and after even more so after Kristallnacht, it fell to women to free their husbands from concentration camps, to run businesses, and to wade through the emigration process.
The fact that the Nazis initially focused their efforts on Jewish men meant that it fell to Jewish women to take charge of the family and plan their escape. In one case, a woman had her husband freed from a camp (to do so, she had to present emigration papers which were not easy to procure), and casually informed him that she had arranged their transport to Shanghai. Her husband—so traumatized from the camp—made no argument. Just by looking at what women were doing, our understanding of this era of Jewish history is changed.
I have read an article arguing that the Renaissance only existed for men, and that women did not undergo this cultural change. The writings of female loyalists in the American Revolutionary period add much needed nuance to our understanding of this period. The character of Jewish liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century is a direct result of the education and socialization of Jewish women. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the point.
So, you wanna understand history? Then you gotta remember the ladies (and not just the privileged ones).
Golda Meir: Prime Badass
Organized 20,000 of New York City’s 32,000 shirtwaist trade workers, leading them in a three-month strike which ended in union contracts at all shops— except at Triangle Shirtwaist. The following year, 150 Triangle Shirtwaist workers died in a fire due to the unsafe conditions, which were part of the general strike’s complaints. Founded a working-class women’s suffrage organization. Founded a working class housewives’ union to advocate for housing, education, and consumer issues. While living in a retirement home, convinced the workers there to organize.(Clara Lemlich)
Graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.S. in Astronomy in 1974 and did graduate work in Computer Science at USC. Before receiving her Astronomy degree, she joined Jet Propulsion Laboratory for temporary summer employment, and accepted a position after receiving her degree in the Outer Planet Satellite Ephemeris Development Group at Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a senior engineer (1974–1981). In March 1979, she discovered the anomalous “crescent” off the limb of Jupiter’s moon Io in a picture of Io taken by Voyager 1 for navigation, after the Voyager 1 close encounter with Jupiter. She proposed a series of hypotheses and conducted investigations to prove or disprove them, to identify the “crescent”. She was able to deduce that the observation was a plume erupting from the surface of Io, and volcanic in origin. Her discovery was announced to the world on March 12, 1979. This was the first non-Earth volcanic eruption ever witnessed and the first proof that other bodies in our solar system are geologically active. Her discovery of active geology on other worlds is heralded as one of the most important discoveries of the planetary exploration program. (Linda A. Morabito)
Developed innovative yet highly controversial treatments for polio, involving prolonged applications of moist hot packs to help ease muscles, relieve pain and allow limbs to be stretched and gently exercised, at odds with the orthodox treatment of immobilisation through the use of plaster casts and splints. Vilified by the medical establishment, became a hugely popular public figure, once voted the ‘Most admirable woman in the United States’. Seen as beacons of hope by parents desperate for their stricken children and dissatisfied by existing treatments, a series of treatment centres opened across the United States throughout the 1940s. Her methods retain a place in rehabilitative medicine to this day. (Sister Elizabeth Kenny)
Geraldine Anne Ferraro (August 26, 1935 – March 26, 2011) was an American attorney, a Democratic Party politician and a former member of the United States House of Representatives. She was the first female Vice Presidential candidate representing a major American political party. Ferraro grew up in New York and became a teacher and lawyer. She joined the Queens County District Attorney’s Office in 1974, where she headed the new Special Victims Bureau that dealt with sex crimes, child abuse, and domestic violence. She was elected to Congress in 1978, where she rose rapidly in the party hierarchy while focusing on legislation to bring equity for women in the areas of wages, pensions, and retirement plans. In 1984, former Vice President and presidential candidate Walter Mondale selected Ferraro to be his running mate in the upcoming election. In doing so she became the only Italian American to be a major-party national nominee in addition to being the first woman. But in the general election, Mondale and Ferraro were defeated. She served as a United States Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights from 1993 until 1996 in the presidential administration of Bill Clinton. She also continued her career as a journalist, author, and businesswoman, and served in the 2008 presidential campaign of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Disobeyed a bus driver’s orders to give up her seat for a white man. Was sequentially arrested and fined for violating a city ordinance, Leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and became a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement. A long time Civil Rights activist, she also fought for justice for black victims of rape perpetrated by white men, which were almost always ignored by the police and justice system. After her death at 92, her casket was placed in the rotunda of the United States Capitol for two days, so the nation could pay its respects, an honor usually reserved for Presidents of the United States. (Rosa Parks)