Tucked away in a corner of Barnard Hall is a small piece of women’s history—and it is highly likely that generations of Barnard and Columbia students have unknowingly walked past this small museum for years.
The boxes that line the shelves of the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s humble library are filled with colorful posters, periodicals, pamphlets, and plenty of unpublished papers. While digging through this treasure trove can be a bit dusty, the reward is well worth the effort. The archives transport you back to a time when Vietnam was making headlines, a typewriter pumped out a 20-page thesis, and the issue of sexual harassment—now depicted in period dramas like “Mad Men”—was very much a reality.
But even digging through these dusty tombs can be unsatisfying. As useful as these sources are, very few are from before 1970. This archive only accounts for the past 40 years of women’s history. What about everything that happened before?
Thinking back to those U.S. history textbooks we all had in the seventh grade, it’s hard to remember more than a chapter devoted to the lives of women. Judging only from those textbooks, it would appear that, every hundred years or so, a brilliant woman came around and revolutionized medicine, technology, or politics. They were always the exceptions and never the rule. The farther back in time we went, the harder it was to get any sense of how Simone de Beauvoir’s “second sex” lived.
While it is well known that the Brontë sisters both wrote under pen names in the 19th century to hide their identities, protect their reputations, and increase their chances of being published, it is surprising to many that our generation’s own beloved J.K. Rowling did the very same. Rowling used the initials “J.K.” instead of Joanne, her full first name. Although it is unclear whether this was her own doing or the creation of her publisher, Bloomsbury, it is evident that the reasoning behind it is no different than that of the Brontë sisters: a fear that men would not purchase her book knowing that it was written by a woman.
With so many obstacles facing women even today, it’s hard to imagine how women as far back as the Renaissance had the courage to break the boundaries separating them from the literary world. Of the few surviving texts written by women, many are in the form of diaries and letters. With the exception of a few casual poems written for pleasure, almost everything else we have from that era was written by men. Why is it that we know so much about Shakespeare and so very little about the 17th-century dramatist Aphra Behn?
Time travel in the search of the feminine is essentially a search for a needle in a haystack. Eventually, we are forced to learn about those voiceless women through the words of loud and often authoritative men. We never hear the other side of history, the one from the mouths of women.
It is this lack of knowledge that is at the heart of Women’s History Month. This month is not a time to dismiss men, but rather a time to acknowledge women. It is a time to assert the importance of giving women a voice with which to tell their own stories and to recognize the value of the untainted truth. The history we study today was written by those who came before us. We, too, have the duty to provide future generations with the most unbiased and pure documentation of historical events possible.
But as crucial as Women’s History Month is for both our generation and the next, the fact that we even have to have a specific month devoted to the study of the role of women in history speaks volumes on the miles we have yet to go. Successful, outspoken, and courageous women surround us here at Barnard and Columbia, and it is safe to say that, unlike what our middle school textbooks suggest, there will be more than one brilliant woman remembered from our century.
Women’s History Month celebrates both these women and the generations of women whose stories have not yet been told. But, at the same time, I can only hope for a day when there will be no need for a Women’s History Month and the relics housed in the BCRW archives will be solemn reminders of a time when women had to fight to be remembered. The voices of women from the past will finally be heard.
The author is a Barnard College junior majoring in English. She is a research assistant in the Barnard Center for Research on Women.