We are quickly approaching the end of March, and with it, the end of Women’s History month. The close of this month reminds me that, as a history major, I end up studying a lot of the same sorts of things. I often jokingly describe my major as “Dead White Men Causing Global Catastrophes.”
In many ways, that focus of the field makes sense — it has been dominated by old white guys for centuries, and they were naturally inclined to focus their research on those they could relate to: other old white guys. But now that more women than ever are contributing to a field that is slowly, but surely, changing. What happens in the ivory tower isn’t usually reflected in how history is taught at the elementary, high school or even college level. The reason that history months have caught on in popularity is that they pick up on areas that are frequently overlooked as historical subjects. This is entirely illogical because it just serves to show how many important studies get forgotten about in the long run. Take, for example, two of my favorite women in history, Ching Shih and Khutulun.
Pirates are a very common pop culture trope, and everyone usually conjures up the same image of a dreadlocked Captain Jack Sparrow shouting about his jar of dirt. But did you know that one of the most successful and notorious pirates of all time was a woman? And a widowed Chinese prostitute at that. Her name was Ching Shih, and after her pirate husband died, she politicked her way to the top of the heap — at one point controlling over 300 junks crewed by 40,000 men. On top of all that, she was undefeated and retired peacefully to the mainland to have a quiet and natural death. The Chinese government actually gave up trying to stop her and offered her amnesty. Pirates in the 1800s didn’t die of natural causes. But Ching Shih was clearly not your average pirate.
It’s a fairly safe bet that you know who Kublai Khan and Marco Polo are, but Khutulun’s name is less familiar. She was Khan’s niece and was widely regarded — even by Polo — as one of the greatest warriors of the Mongol Empire. She announced that she would marry any man who could beat her in a wrestling match. If he lost, he had to give her around 100 horses. A tempting deal: How hard could it be to beat a lady at wrestling? Well, apparently, it was pretty difficult, because she was never defeated and amassed over 10,000 horses. Her father even tried to name her as his successor but was overruled because she had male siblings.
Have you ever heard of either of these ladies before right now? I’m going to put my money on a firm no. But their stories are just two of the hundreds of thousands that deserve to be told. That’s the problem with how many people approach the study of history. They break it down into such small pieces that they fail to recognize the incredible stories of some of history’s most intriguing figures.
I want to learn about the female scientists whose work was presented by their male colleagues to international acclaim (Rosalind Franklin, Chien-Shiung Wu and Lise Meitner come to mind) alongside the men who took credit for their ideas. I want to hear about the women of the civil rights movement who organized the entire Montgomery Bus Boycott but whose names are never mentioned alongside the civil rights greats.
What I want — and what every student of history should want — is to be taught about the accomplishments of women, people of color and other traditionally excluded groups as part of a normal curriculum. Don’t focus on our accomplishments for one month and ignore us for the other 11. “Women’s History” is everyone’s history and deserves to be treated as such.
Nicole Jarvis is a junior in the College. Pardon My French appears every other Friday in the guide.