It wasn't until college that I realized the way that women had been erased from history. I'd studied the subject in high school; my teacher attributed the lack of notable women on his curriculum to the fact that "there just aren't as many women to talk about." At university, though, I started to feel suspicious: How was it that none of my professors could find any women who were worth noting—since the beginning of time?
It's a well-documented fact that, in Western history and philosophy (and literature, science, technology, government and media for that matter), women are mysteriously absent. It's like we're a secret society or some little-known species of dinosaur. We suspect women existed, there's just no way to be sure.
A project at the New School in New York City is chipping away at the problem, which its founders see as an injustice as old as time. Project Continua, a collaborative of professors and students, is seeking out women's stories throughout history and finally giving them the sustained attention they deserve.
"There have always been women producing knowledge and contributing to human understanding and participating in the great events and new ideas of their time," said Gina Luria Walker, Project Continua's director. "Most of whom have been ignored, trivialized, or written out."
She's talking about women like Laura Bassi, a scientist so brilliant that Voltaire once said he wanted to move from London to Bologna just to work in the same city as her; women like He-Yin Zhen, whose magazine Tianyi Bao gave China its first translation of The Communist Manifesto in 1908; and women like Enheduanna, a Mesopotamian princess who lived more than 2,000 years before Christ and may have been the first author to ever refer to herself with the pronoun "I."
There have always been women producing knowledge and contributing to human understanding.
"It's too easy to blame the media, or blame big business, or capitalism, or white men," said Walker, who teaches multiple courses at New School on women's intellectual history. "The issue is ancient. It is primordial."
Walker's students work through her curriculum, but sometimes their own interests and backgrounds also end up informing it. Yada Thonganantamars, who grew up in Thailand, took Walker's class but wanted to hear more stories of women in Asia. She began researching and found Mahapajapati, the very first Buddhist nun and the woman who raised Buddha after his biological mother died. According to legend, when she first asked Buddha to ordain women, he refused. So she shaved her head, found some robes, and marched barefoot—with 500 other women—to change his mind. What she created is the longest surviving legacy of women's ordination in any religion.
"I've been sort of Buddhist my entire life but I'd never heard of her," Thonganantamars said. "We really have no women to look at in Buddhism, and it's such a strong part of Thai culture."
Another one of Walker's students, Chi-Ante Singletary, focused on Maymie De Mena. De Mena is a woman you'd be hard pressed to find information about, even though she led the entire Latin American and Caribbean chapter of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Her activism led to the independence of Jamaica, Singletary said.
"She's all but written out of all Marcus Garvey histories, and it's one of the biggest injustices among Marcus Garvey scholars," said Singletary. "You have these huge chapters that have caused pivotal moments in history that are written out almost explicitly because they're founded and supported … by black women."
You have these huge chapters [in history] that are written out almost explicitly because they're founded and supported by black women.
Not only are women's accomplishments left out of history, they're sometimes attributed to men. Linda Xue, a Parsons student who directs digital applications and design for Project Continua, wants to know why Wikipedia credits Picasso and Braque with inventing collage. A collective of female artists in the Victorian era made clever collages satirizing Darwin's On the Origin of Species, she noted. How can we seriously think collage was invented only 100 years ago?
What's happened in history and what's happening today is more than just erasure, said student Hannah Lamb-Vines. She worked at the New York Public Library's shop, and said she could only find one collection that had an equal number of female and male authors. "It was supposed to provide knowledge and research for everyone but was contributing to the erasure—not even the erasure, the complete cover-up—of women's literary history," she said.
Project Continua is uncovering women's rich history and bringing it to the masses. Their first zine, Persisters, tells the stories of ten women from Renaissance Italy to 20th century New York. They plan to make many more, "because ten women are just not enough," Xue said.
These stories show girls that they can do anything, Walker said. And the result is more than just content to talk about in women's history classes. "Until we make the point that females have both breasts and brains, how will the sexual violence against them stop?" she asked. Women feel like we don't have a common history, Walker said, but that's a lie.
What would happen if we started taking women's stories seriously? "We would have a new planet," she said. "There is an alternate universe out there we may want to explore."