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Salvaging the Wreck of History

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It took me a while to dive into the wreck of history. After all, it was 1974. I entered first grade, and Barbara DiCorsia, my teacher—who was the smartest and most beautiful teacher in the whole world—played the album Free to Be You and Me during our snack break. The lyrics to the title song included:

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Ev’ry boy in this land grows to be his own man,
In this land ev’ry girl grows to be her own woman,
Take my hand, come with me, where the children are free
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll run
In a land where the river runs free,
In a land with a green country,
Where you and me are free to be
You and me.

It was That Moment in the ’70s when it all seemed absolutely true, at least in Ms. DiCorsia’s first-grade class. Then, in fifth grade, I had Ms. Faas for American history, which she spelled herstory, making it clear that something had been amiss before the ’70s. Ms. Faas taught us that Abigail Adams had asked John Adams to “remember the ladies” in the founding documents of the republic, but he hadn’t. That Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth fought slavery in a land that would give them emancipation, but not the vote. That Jewish, Chinese, and Italian immigrant women did the cleaning for their customers, only to come home to the family’s laundry. Clearly, some people had been more free than others.

It wasn’t until college, however, that the wreck of history truly crashed into full view. In 1988, I began to work for the Women Writers Project, a scholarly research group whose mission was to publish all the writing by women in English between 1350 and 1850 on the nascent World Wide Web. My bosses—scholars of English and American literature—estimated that there might be 5 to 12 manuscripts to publish. The project was meant to last a couple of years. Needless to say, it is still going strong (and you can see it at www.wwp.brown.edu). There were not five or a dozen or a hundred lost texts, but thousands. The question that Virginia Woolf had faced—Why were there so few women writers, and none of genius?—was based on false premises: women were too stupid, too lazy, too much like animals or children to make a literary tradition. In fact, women had written, but they had been refused publication or mocked as unnatural, never taught to the next generation as examples of what the literate mind can accomplish. But now, like a lost continent, or a library of resurrection, centuries of writing returned. The Blazing World of Margaret Cavendish, the first science fiction in our language. Aphra Behn’s A Voyage to the Island of Love, a book-length poem by the first professional English woman writer. The Countess of Pembroke’s fine translation of the Psalms. Ann Plato’s Essays, published two decades before the American Civil War, when Americans were not sure that descendents of Africa could learn to write. Examples might be multiplied. We were stunned.

Not because of the sheer volume or beauty of the writing, but because a great lie had been exposed. It had been inside us, of all places, and we had barely realized it was there. No one had taught it to us—we were “free to be,” after all. Instead, we had inherited a system of silence. We had thought there might be a few voices left to hear, if we listened hard enough, and there were hurricanes. The weather would change now. There would no longer be the history of men, or the herstory of the “exceptional” women who had escaped invisibility. Now we would have the full story, the real story, of women and men together, a story that might be the truth, at last.

The making of this truth is not finished. We still need to listen for hurricanes. For this reason we celebrate Women’s History Month. In “Diving into the Wreck,” the poet Adrienne Rich exhorts us to discard the “book of myths in which our names do not appear.” In that spirit, I invite everyone to open a new book, the book of our lives together, so that history takes flight at the sound of all our names.

 

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