“We’re talking about women who pushed through these systems that denied them their intelligence, their skill, their talents…These are the exceptional few women who made it through all of those barriers.”
History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know, a title for young adults just released by Macmillan, takes a fresh view of history. Written by Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams, the book profiles 25 women and is a breathtaking ramble from third-century Vietnam to fourteenth-century Italy, from ninth-century Morocco to nineteenth-century China and 20th century United States. Each chapter is a brisk read, with driving and sometimes elegant prose. There are stunning illustrations by T.S. Abe that bring each subject to life with movement and humanity.
“It is incredibly daunting to pick 25 women out of the whole of history. We want to show that women in the third century, the fourth century were doing cool things. There were women who were active in those moments: they were making a difference in the world. We often look at history and say, well, women didn’t do anything. That is because women were not allowed to participate,” Sarkeesian told the Pittsburgh Current via telephone from Los Angeles. “So we’re talking about women who pushed through these systems that denied them their intelligence, their skill, their talents. And also had their lives recorded. These are the exceptional few women who made it through all of those barriers.”
Anita Sarkeesian and Ebony Adams will speak at the Carnegie Lecture Hall on October 3 at 7 pm as part of the Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures ‘New and Noted’ series.
Though this book is the first such effort for Adams and Sarkeesian, they collaborate regularly as two of the women behind Feminist Frequency, a not-for-profit organization that analyzes gender, race and sexuality in media — film, television, literature, social media and video games. Sarkeesian started Feminist Frequency in 2009, and the 2012/2013 video series, ‘Tropes versus Women,’ which examined portrayals of women in video games sparked a malevolent online harassment campaign (including death and rape threats.) Feminist Frequency has only grown since then and, needless to say, Sarkeesian remains steadfast in her commitment to the project.
The subjects of this particular collection are from all over the globe. Quite deliberately so. The only real parameter the authors used was not to profile any living women. This history is not meant not to be the complete analysis, but a dip in the shallow end sparking further interest and exploration. It is intended to get the reader thinking about history as a construct and how it is often taught. History vs Women seeks to tip the scales, even a little bit, toward balance and inclusivity.
There are histories which are ignored, overlooked or deliberately withheld. Sarkeesian and Adams ask these simple questions: Why don’t we know about Bà Triệu, a Vietnamese freedom fighter? Why didn’t we learn about Sikh warrior Mai Bhago?
There are pirates and ballerinas, journalists and crusading princesses, novelists and prime ministers, philosophers, thieves and legal scholars. Just as importantly, there are everyday heroes, like Lucy Hicks Anderson, who was the first transwoman to defend her gender in court. She didn’t want to be a hero. She didn’t want to stride the earth like a colossus (as does Bà Triệu.) She just wanted to live her full life, born in a body that did not match her gender. Hers is one of the more moving stories. “There’s something about the particular kind of quiet courage with which she lived her life, which is almost mind-boggling to me. She was quietly but insistently committed to living her truth. I will always be blown away by Lucy Hicks Anderson,” said Adams.
Others, too, simply sought to live as they pleased. Bessie Stringfield was an African-American woman who, in the 1930’s, rode her motorcycle across America. She often had to sleep with her bike outside gas stations because hotels were not open to black Americans. But, as Sarkeesian said, “she did it anyway.”
Then there is Griselda Blanco, one of the women in the villains category. She was Al Capone, Pablo Escobar and Walter White rolled into one. If she were a man, there would be a dozen or more film treatments based on her life. Sure, she’s horrible, rapacious and murderous — but she’s also mesmerizing.
“The goal of documenting history is not to it’s not to re-write the history,” said Adams. “And it’s not to sanitize the history. It’s to show what happened and where we came from and to help us to see how to move forward in the future,” said Adams. “The project of feminism is not to sanitize and only show the women who are doing heroic, amazing things. It is to show the fullness of women.”
Jody DiPerna is a Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer. Contact her at Jody@pittsburghcurrent.com.