Demystifying Herstory: A Closer Look at Feminist Historical Recovery

In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf makes a startling claim about woman, writing that “she pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.” Examining the shelves of history, Woolf finds them empty of female voices, a fact with which she struggles to grapple in her text.

When we as women in the twenty-first century peer back into History – that is, our canonical understanding of history – it is impossible not to feel the traces of Woolf’s despondency. Our voices have been silenced, our lives mythologized, and our traces erased. This feeling, however, is mitigated when we dig deeper into the past and unearth the women who have been there all along and, in turn, discover ourselves in their stories: in a rich, prolific legacy.

When I first enrolled at The New School for Social Research as an MA student, I did not call myself a feminist. I assumed that women’s contributions to knowledge were few and far between. While perusing the academic catalogue, I discovered a course called Women’s Intellectual History, taught by Professor Gina Luria Walker. My bachelor’s degree was in Classics, and my heart leapt for joy when I spied Sappho, one of my most beloved ancient poets, on the syllabus. Sappho was joined by a litany of names I had never before encountered: Enheduanna, Vibia Perpetua, Christine de Pizan, Marguerite de Navarre. Week after week, I sat in a classroom along with a group of other passionate, inquisitive women and found confidence and solace in the women whose words I read.

My decision to study with Professor Walker transformed my understanding of history and “the canon.” It informed my MA thesis work and introduced me to countless female figures from the past who have become kindred spirits and given me the courage to discover my own feminist voice. I have discovered traces of ancient voices that have enriched my understanding of the classical past, as well as European and Scandinavian women writing in Latin in the Renaissance and Early Modern period.

Many of these incredible figures were autodidacts whose positions outside of traditional modes and narratives of learning allowed them to express themselves in transgressive, imaginative ways. One of my favorite women is Laura Cereta, an Italian humanist who lived in the 15th century and died far too young at age 30. In a Latin letter to a likely fictional male interlocutor who denigrates women’s involvement in intellectual pursuits, she composes a response that never fails to astound me. Here is an excerpt:

“A mind thirsting for revenge is set afire…a sleeping pen is wakened for insomniac writing. Because of this, red-hot anger lays bare a heart and mind long muzzled by silence […] I, who have always held virtue in high esteem and considered private things as secondary in importance, shall wear down and exhaust my pen writing against those men who are garrulous and puffed up with false pride. I shall not fail to obstruct tenaciously their treacherous snares. And I shall strive in a war of vengeance against the notorious abuse of those who will everything with noise, since armed with such abuse certain insane and infamous men bark and bare their teeth in vicious wrath at the republic of women, so worthy of veneration.”

Cereta’s prose is unapologetic and uncompromising. Unlike Woolf, she knows that she is part of an esteemed legacy of educated women that extends back in time and will continue long after her death. Reading Cereta’s letters taught me that the right amount of female rage is not only justified, but can be productive and galvanizing to others.

My work with Gina quickly transcended the classroom and transitioned to a project that now bears the name The New Historia, of which Gina is the founder and director. Based at The New School, the Center celebrated its official launch in late April. One of its central goals is to combat centuries of misogyny by recovering women who have dared to think and write throughout history; who have shown that they can possess, in Gina’s words, “both breasts and brains.”

The work of the New Historia is collaborative, relying on the expertise and contributions of scholars from around the globe. It challenges traditionally received knowledge ordering systems and conceptions of intellectual history, showing that women do not need to be “discovered” but rather remembered, since they have been present in history all along. Digital archives will help organize the increasing amounts of information we are gathering about these women, so that a vibrant constellation of female networks and influences is made visible.

By educating young girls and boys about women’s rightful place in history, we hope to foster a creative, cooperative dialogue that will help shape a reformed understanding of the past. Gina calls this “a tempered optimism that in future, together, male and female knowledge will create a more human world.” The project of feminist historical recovery involves the process of what feminist philosopher Andrea Nye aptly terms “the necessary restructuring of our perspective.”

Such restructuring will mean approaching texts with open, critical minds, and refusing to form interpretations based on anachronistic conceptions of feminism and misogyny; to both compose new (her)stories and, at times, edit received scholarly narratives. This work raises larger issues in the history of various academic disciplines, especially philosophy, issues that continue to define how women relate to and participate in the production and dispensation of knowledge.

Even today, female intellectuals are still subject to the ghettoization of their voices; they are allowed to speak for the particularity of their sex but not for a universal, human experience… Historical women’s voices are so striking because they dare to speak not just for themselves, or for women, but for all.

Even today, female intellectuals are still subject to the ghettoization of their voices; they are allowed to speak for the particularity of their sex but not for a universal, human experience. One need only think of the daily occurrences of mansplaining that occur in the office, in classrooms, and online. Toril Moi eloquently states that “for women to gain the right to speak for all is, as a matter of course, also to gain the right to be philosophers, the right to define themselves at once as women and as lovers of wisdom and seekers of truth.”

Historical women’s voices are so striking because they dare to speak not just for themselves, or for women, but for all. Our task as women thinking and writing today is to listen more closely to them and their echoes throughout history, to shine the light of rigorous historical inquiry into their lives, works, and afterlives. It is a difficult and lengthy process with a unique set of challenges, but whenever I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the work, I call to mind Gina’s typical one-word email sign-off: “Onward.” 

Hilary Ilkay recently completed her MA in Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research. Originally from Toronto, she received a First Class Honors BA in Classics from the University of King’s College and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, focusing on Latin and ancient Greek philology and literature. Her main research focuses on intersections between classical and contemporary paradigms of desire, articulated in both philosophical and literary texts, and on gender fluidity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.