No this is not an April Fool’s Joke, given that 9 Ways has just spent a month talking about the importance of knowing our history. Rather, it is an intriguing contrary point of view about the less than salutary effects of history from Linda Brodsky M.D. Read it and let me know what you think.
During a Brit family sitcom on NPR last week, a great line popped out of the addled grandfather’s mouth when his grandson told him he was studying history at university: “There is no future in history.” Worthy of an out loud laugh from this one-time student of history (major in college: history of religion), the thought lingered beyond that night and grew into this post. It’s relevance to Women’s History Month, whose theme is “Our History is Our Strength” is not irrelevant.
Which brings me to my discomfiture with this theme. Why? Well, let’s take a look at a two common observations about history and how we might apply their collective wisdom to the present and future status of women, which are, after all, the only reason to bring attention to our history.
History is destiny. Your history can define you, in good ways and in bad. As an individual your early life’s circumstances have profound effects upon you later life outcomes in most cases. For groups, their history is often embedded cultural norms and behaviors which are out of synch with forward positive movement (dare not use word “success”). Therefore, in both cases, history binds and depletes one’s strength.
History repeats itself. Themes in history are the basis for the study of history. War, migration, political power shifts, and the like continue on without a lick of attention to lessons of the past. Only with hindsight do we judge our history and its lessons are only learned with a shortsighted lens, as the circumstances and people who lived that history can never be reproduced. Learning from history is a very hard thing to do. If history repeats itself, women will be exploited, marginalized and undervalued in different ways—take human slave trafficking and forced prostitution of the woman-child found world wide today.
On the other hand, our past can galvanize us as a group, can give us commonality, strength and inspiration, if we are willing to identify with that history and let it shape our destiny. With such a large, diverse group, such as are women, the commonality often dissolves into our differences. And frankly, how many of our young women can identify courageous, forward thinking women from each of the three waves of feminism, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Betty Friedan, or Rebecca Walker? My daughters don’t, and most of yours don’t either. Will this hold them back? I think not.
Like most people, we mostly live in the here and now. It is human nature, not history, which repeats itself. And it is very hard to change human nature. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And the human nature we need to change is our own. How do you consciously work to alter the circumstances of women so that their history is neither their destiny nor a repeated refrain packaged anew?
Where are we now? And where do we want to be tomorrow? Those are the important questions. Yes, history can provide some insight into the first, but only those of us who dare to take positive action, whether it be large or small, can change the future for women and be somewhere different tomorrow. Our strength is our future—now go build it.
Linda Brodsky, MD is a physician activist who next week is launching her new organization Expediting the Inevitable committed to tapping into the workforce of women physicians to fully, fairly and flexibly integrate them into the healthcare workforce for the better health of the patients we serve. Anyone can join her at The Inevitable! Find out more about Linda at and visit her personal blog too.
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