Monday, October 3, 2011

"Herstory": a case study in politicised language

Don't trust this man
When I was a student in the 1980s, feminism seemed in a bit of a rut. The headline battles of 1970s feminism had been won in terms of legislation on equality, while the battlegrounds of the 1990s hadn't been properly marked out. Feminists either seemed to be agitating for rematches of the battle their older sisters had already won or were picking fights about matters that seemed frankly trivial, seemingly in order to appear just as radical as earlier generations without having found anything that was worth being radical about.

There were, as it happens, plenty of issues to be radical about, but the problems and more so the solutions weren't so easy to define. Put simply, the enemy had moved. It was almost like an army of crusaders who arrive to find that Jerusalem has already fallen and so have to satisfy their zeal and aggression by massacring the prisoners. So, male students were presented with codes of behaviour insisting, among other things, that they should never speak to a woman unless she speaks first.

You shouldn't trust my student self. I don't
It might have been a case of young, inexperienced feminists having trouble articulating the issues, though it probably says more about my own naïvety, arrogance and inability or unwillingness to understand those issues behind the aggressive rhetoric. It's just possible I've matured a bit since, though there are those that doubt it. No matter, it's too long ago for me to reassess it objectively now.

One thing I found particularly irritating was the insistence that women's history be termed 'herstory'. This word wasn't presented as a portmanteau; its proponents argued that the word 'history' actually meant 'his story' and so de facto excluded women (I'm not making this up: I saw it argued in print and a feminist friend – an English student no less – tried to persuade me it was true). The same instinct inspired the spelling 'womyn' for 'women' in order to remove 'men' from the equation. The reaction – probably inspired by Private Eye – was the derisory term 'wimmin'.

Gimme dat Indo-European groove
If all you care about is the purity of language, then the issue is simple. 'History' comes, via French, from the Latin 'historia'. 'His' is English, not Latin (the Latin for 'his' is 'eius'). The 'his' element of 'historia' comes ultimately from the Indo-European 'wied' (know), and is related to the words 'wise' and 'vision'. Gender doesn't enter into it. 'Woman' comes from the Middle English 'wif-man'. If you're a stickler for consistency, you'd insist that anyone using 'womyn' should also use 'humyn'. However, that would mark you out as excessively confrontational, or simply as a bit of an arse. Still, you'd be right to insist that neither 'womyn' nor 'hersory' has any etymological justification.

For me, that's not enough. I still object to 'herstory', but not as strongly as I used to. I'm quite happy for new terms to enter the language, which is why I always call this collection of essays my 'blog'. However, I will never use the term 'webinar', for the simple reason that it's too damned ugly, and I dislike 'herstory' for the same reason. 

Ghetto academia
Nevertheless, women's history is a completely valid sphere of research, especially since the role of women in history was neglected for so long ("geography's about maps and history's about chaps", as they used to say). However, calling it 'herstory' breaks the link with the rest of history. Instead of bringing women into the mainstream of history, we risk creating a separate ghetto where politicised female historians only talk to each other, leaving historians on both sides of the wall impoverished. At its worst, it can become narrow-minded and ideologically driven, leading to a cult mentality and undermining the objectivity necessary for any academic study.

When women's history (or, better, the role of women in history) is considered within the wider context of history as a whole, we get fresh insights into subjects we thought we already knew. Just as an example, I'll point you to an episode of In Our Time discussing the role of women in Enlightenment science. The research might have been inspired by a feminist outlook, but the result is fascinating for anyone who is interested in the history of science. 

None of this sounds like an acceptance of the term 'herstory', but the term does have its uses as a shorthand (especially in the character-restricted world of Twitter). But I don't think its users should take it too seriously.

Moral: Beware of unintended consequences when inventing new words.
PS. My thanks to @MadamMJo for initiating the Twitter conversation that inspired this post. I respect her very much, but her opinions don't exactly align with mine.

1 comment:

  1. We Scots are definitely well ahead. Herstory and womyn were coined in the 60s - but we've been using the word wummin for centuries...

    The earnest angry ones stumbled on a good shorthand neologism in Herstory. Etymologically it never did bear close scrutiny. But that wasn't its point. It was there to very quickly and crudely point up the fact that the history we imbibed was gendered. It was just a wee part of the consciousness raising necessary if women were to begin redressing the balance - or if the male-dominated status quo was to be challenged.

    Have you been reading that old book Who Stole Feminism? Sommers objected to Herstory too - but then she also objected to Womens Studies Dept and the homely women (her description) which populated them. She can be a bit of a tit at times.

    Did enjoy the post. Thanks.