On the Perks of Learning Feminist History (or HERstory!)

A Feminist Dictionary by Cheris Kramarae & Paula A. Treichler book cover
A Feminist Dictionary book cover

Since I have practically lived at the Feminist Library in London for the past four or so years, I have had the opportunity to learn a lot about women’s history generally and feminist herstories more specifically. Yet, I remain painfully aware of just how little I still know, how hidden these histories are from us, and how late I have come into learning about them because of it. Nevertheless, I like to remind myself just how much, in these four short years, my life has changed because of the herstories I did find at the Feminist Library, and beyond.

First of all, I found Gerda Lerner, who remains one of the most foundational and prolific voices in my life. Her wisdom is a guiding force that will stay with me always. She is the woman who introduced the discipline of women’s history to academia in the US. She researched women’s history extensively and as far back as was possible, and the resulting theory, outlined in her book – The Creation of Patriarchy – should be a foundational one to the feminist movement. Yet she isn’t very well known today. This, to me, is the ‘perfect’ reflection of how far we still have to go before herstory becomes an equal and accepted part of history.

Secondly, I discovered Carolyn Merchant and her powerful theory on the separation between the human and the rest of the natural world caused by the thinking behind the scientific revolution, which she outlined in The Death of Nature. The book should be, to my mind a principle text in both history and science. If only either was taught from a more critical perspective… It dared me to imagine how different the outcome of my education might have been, had I learned about it at school. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity, and it had to take me another decade or so to find it in my own research. Now it will always stay with me, and I am grateful for that. But I do, passionately, believe that I should have learned that perspective much earlier in life. Now that I know it, I know that I needed it.

Finally, one day, while browsing the Library for something else, I found a copy of A Feminist Dictionary by Cheris Kramarae and Paula A. Treichler – the only physical dictionary that I use on fairly regular basis these days. It opened my eyes to just how much our, societal, and my very own language is skewed by the patriarchal culture that I live in. Which also reminds me of Dale Spender and her Man Made Language, which was one of the first feminist texts I ever read. Or perhaps devoured would be a more appropriate term! I never knew I was such hunger for knowledge until I found feminist theory at university. It, and realising that hunger was in me, changed my life forever.

These are just a few examples. I’m not going to bore you with any more here. There are many stories I could share with you of my discoveries at the Feminist Library. Many that I have written about on this blog already. Many still waiting to be written. There are ever multiple stories of dragons alone! But the point of this blog post was not to list my knowledge of the Library catalogue. It was to showcase why learning is important to me. I hope these examples were an enticing introduction to the Library if not a simple, straightforward answer to the question. I’m going to share one more story with you here, which I believe encapsulates my love of learning well.

I was always a good student. Not great, but good. My grades were always satisfactory in school, but I never really excelled at anything. My memory for formulas was pretty nonexistent. Similarly with dates and names. I often wondered why. That was one of the key reason I went on to study psychology as my first degree – to help me understand the why. Psychology itself did not have the answers, at least not then, or perhaps not at that level. But the process of discovering Critical Feminist Psychology, and the feminist histories, answered that question for me. More than 10 years on, I still remember the names of the authors of the first feminist articles I read and the titles of the books that changed my life. I discovered my memory wasn’t bad at all. It’s just that I was never taught much worth remembering, at least not to my mind, up until that point! I’d never before really known the excitement of learning something of critical importance to my life. And now that I know what the thrill of learning something like that feels like, it is a feeling that I seek out on a daily basis. I thrive on it.

Learning is a journey of exploration. It often takes you down paths fairly well know – ones of refinement. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, it can also take you down a new road – one of discovery. Of something new that can change your life forever. Such has been my experience on many occasions, I am blessed to say. And for that I will forever be grateful to the women, feminists and other freedom fighters, who have come down this path before me and have managed to enlighten it for me, and others, in process. And for the Feminist Library and other spaces with alternative knowledge.


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