Opinion: Women's History Month Should Be More Educational

What really makes up women’s history? Is what we are being taught about this history the whole picture? These are the questions I ask during October, Women’s History Month.

In a release by the Government of Canada, it is stated Women’s History Month should be directed towards the leaders of movements that shaped women over time. Although this is a correct statement, it fails to emphasize there is a dark past to women’s history that most of the population is unaware of.

Some of these stories include the sterilization of Indigenous and migrant women, residential schools, and of the integration of black women back into society after slavery was abolished.

According to Patrizia Gentile, a professor in the institute of interdisciplinary studies at Carleton University, most historians writing about the evolution of women only convey the stories of a middle class white woman.

Gentile said understanding women’s history is difficult all at once because there are different impacts. These impacts include class, race and gender, all revolving around how society has changed over time. However, historians choose not to take these effects into consideration when promoting the histories of Canadian women.

“Black women’s history . . . indigenous women’s and immigrants women’s history does not get counted necessarily in a way that white women’s history does,” Gentile said. “The first question we should ask ourselves is which women’s history are we wanting to learn? Which women’s history are we ‘celebrating’? Which women’s history counts and which ones are seen as not-counting (within popular Canadian views)?”

During the Victorian era white middle class women were expected to the stay in the home while their husbands went out and made the money for the family.

We know through popular documents and historians when men began fighting in wars, these women began their roles as the ‘breadwinners’ of the family. However, Gentile said Canada’s history never touches on working class women hard at work for their families before these times.

“Working class women and poor women have been working in the workplace for over a hundred year period,” Gentile said. “Despite the fact in history we’re supposed to think about the progress of time, I see history more of what are the stories of the different sectors of Canadian society and how did they experience that period of time.”

The way men see women within the modern era also comes into play. It begs the question: how did we get here when a hundred years ago women were owned by their men through law and couldn't work outside the home?

“I think the feminist movement that began ‘officially’ in the 60s and into the 90s was a complete upheaval in the idea that there’s a way that women are supposed to behave and there’s a way that men are supposed to behave,” Gentile said.

Gentile believes those who say that this created a crisis for men are wrong. She said wanting equality for every living being should not be a symbol of chaos, but more of integration.

“This current moment where we’re supposed to think that men are having a problem with their masculinity because of what happened with the feminist movement is actually just a strategy used by a particular (male) sector to try to de-legitimize (women’s equality),” Gentile added.

We also need to understand women are still not the rule-makers within society and this is due to history adapting to make it seem like women have some power within their hands. We have come to have the same rights as men, but women should strive to become leaders and advocators within high influential groups. For example women need to integrate themselves into the United Nations, which is controlled by men making tough decisions for not only Canada, but the world.  

In order for us, as women, to understand this, we need to look back on how a diverse number of women evolved through societal changes.

“If the purpose of Women’s History Month is to educate the public about a group in society that is seen as marginalized women, whether were talking about white women, immigrant women, black women . . . then let’s actually do that,” Gentile said. “Let’s actually populate them on all the experiences over a certain amount of time.”