On 5th March 2019, the departments of English and the department of Ancient India and World History jointly hosted a public lecture by Prof. Geraldine Forbes, Distinguished Teaching Professor Emerita, Department of History, State University of New York Oswego.
The title of the talk was: “The Challenges of Researching and Writing Women’s History”
This talk focused on the importance of writing histories that include all women, examining women’s lives in their own terms, and promoting more egalitarian gender relations. Forbes began with a survey of the first efforts to write feminist women’s history, the problems researchers encountered with the archives, efforts to find new sources and new methodologies, and the history that has been written.
In suggesting new sources, Forbes discussed mining family photograph collections for details about women’s lives within their families. However, photography collections are only useful in retrieving the lives of middle and upper-middle class women; the images that have survived of working-class women seldom include biographical details. Although families often photographed their servants, they rarely preserved their names or other details of their lives.
Other material objects, for example, kitchen utensils and the tools of market women, have not yet received much attention. However, researchers have begun examining kanthas for evidence of what was important to women, their role in gift giving, women’s rituals and beliefs, and women’s knowledge events outside the home. Kanthas may not tell historians much about the individual artists, but they can contribute to an understanding of women’s everyday lives and their connection to and role in cultural production.
The project of recovery – the first goal of women’s history when it emerged in the 1970s – was to find out the details of women’s lives and work, and recreate them as subjects of history. This has been possible with women like Rashsundari Debi, Binodini Dasi, and Haimabati Sen, but it has not been possible to find the memoir of a maidservant or jute mill worker. The imperative now is to move beyond the project of recovery to try to understand women’s lived lives and write histories of women from all regions, classes, castes, and ideologies. This involves asking different questions, turning to diverse sources, and analyzing findings in new ways.
This project may not lead to the recovery of complete stories. However, there is value in recovering stories that disrupt the conventional narrative of undifferentiated women, victimhood, unmitigated suffering, and oppressive patriarchy. What may emerge are stories of women who did not succeed, oppressed other women, lied, cheated, and even murdered. It is important that historians grapple with stories they do not like, stories that do not advance feminism, and stories that are appalling. These must be told alongside stories of women who resisted oppression and of women who accepted the patriarchal order. Presenting women as simply victims or as agents of their own lives misses the ways in which women, and all people, belong to cultures and societies and must act within contexts of power relations. Good history, inclusive history will help us understand some of the endemic problems women face: violence, discrimination, and a declining sex ratio as well as where and when resistance to oppression was successful.