“History” as an object of cultural consumption, as a section label at Barnes & Noble, as a thing about which one can be a buff, is about more than just history—it’s about ideas of importance. Sure, I might get my mother a book about adoption, or the history of gynecology, or fabric—but does that really count as “History” to the history buffs? If they don’t recognize it as “History,” will she?
One of the main ways women engage with the past—reading historical fiction—doesn’t seem to count either, even when it’s about counts. That’s not because historical fiction is inherently bad, but add romance, you see, and it’s not really the same. It doesn’t matter how much research the author may have put in—and they’ve often put in a whole lot—or how much they’ve decided to prioritize thrills over historical content, our culture does not think reading Jean Plaidy is the same as reading Bernard Cornwell. This perspective has started to change, probably because historians of women have helped reshape our ideas of the past and what counts as important, but I don’t think women who read a lot of historical fiction consider themselves “history buffs” in the same way Patrick O’Brian fans do. When it comes down to it, it’s not just that the history of women things is less important, it’s that in a patriarchal system, women engaging in things lowers their cultural value.
Well, you might ask, does your mother read history? Do you get her history books for Mother’s Day? Is she interested in history?
Probably not, by conventional metrics. She has always read historical fiction—much of it romantic—as did her own mother, but she is not really interested in Team of Rivals. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that my interest in history was cultivated by conversations with my mother. Beyond that, I realize she was a model of historical thinking, after a fashion, without either of us realizing it. It’s just that none of it looked like the things that my culture called history.
When I was in eighth grade, the night before I had to go up to the high school for a big educational session on HIV/AIDS, my mother and I had a conversation about her experiences working in a hospital, and how things had changed in just over a decade. I just didn’t know that was history.
I remember her telling me about the generational discord over breast milk versus formula, how it played out in her life and in the lives of her friends. I learned about La Leche League meetings from her—I just didn’t know that was history.