Writing Women Back Into History: The National Women’s History Alliance

If you’re in the United States and interested in women’s history, you should keep the National Women’s History Alliance  (formerly the National Women’s History Project) on your radar.(1)

Founded in 1980, NWHP led the coalition that successfully lobbied Congress to name March as National Women’s History Month.

Today the organization is a major clearing house for information about women’s history for teachers, parents, community organizations, the media and anyone else who wants to know more. Their motto is “writing women back into history”—an idea I fully support. (No surprise there.) Among other things:

  •  They distribute tens of thousands of posters, curriculum kits, videos and program guides.
  • They maintain a registry of women’s history performers and speakers.(2)
  • During the recent election, they helped interested voters find the burial places of suffragists from their community so they could celebrate voting by putting a flower or voting sticker on a local suffragists grave. (An idea I think is brilliant and creative.)
  • They promote a multicultural perspective of women’s history.  Not a small matter.
  • They chose an annual theme for Women’s History Month and honor women who embody that theme. The theme for 2019 is Visionary Women: Champions of Peace and Non-Violence. It’s too late to nominate your favorite shin-kicker for the 2019 awards, but the process for 2020 should open in the spring.

Their work is important. Our schools still largely teach history as his-story. The National Women’s History Alliance makes it easier for teachers to give children a broader vision of the past, and consequently a broader vision of the future.

Currently the alliance is in the middle of its annual on-line auction, with 100+ books and other items related to women’s history, including a signed copy of Heroines of Mercy Street. If that’s your jam, here’s the link: https://www.biddingforgood.com/auction/auctionhome.action?auctionId=341440005

New items are being added daily.  The auction goes through November 20, 8:00 pm, Pacific Standard Time

(1) Not the same thing as the National Women’s History Museum.
(2) Why yes, I should add my name to that list.  *Headsmack*

The General’s Niece

Over the last year I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about women involved in resistance movements in World War II.

The extent of women’s particicpation in the armed resistance units known as the maquis is a matter of dispute. But no one doubts that many women performed critical activities that allowed the maquis to function. Because women could move more freely, they acted as couriers and collected intelligence, and arranged for food, supplies, and shelter for armed insurgents and downed Allied pilots. They transported weapons and ammunition and distributed illegal printed materials, sometimes using the trappings of pregnancy and motherhood to help them smuggle contraband under the eyes of German soldiers. Their work was as dangerous as that performed by any armed maquisard. Without them, the armed groups could not have carried out their actions, yet historians often describe their work as “passive resistance.” As Paige Bowers demonstrates in The General’s Niece: The Little-Known De Gaulle Who Fought to Free Occupied France, they were not passive by any reasonable definition of the term.

Genevieve De Gaulle was a teenager when the war began. Inspired by the example of her uncle, Charles De Gaulle, she became a fervent member of the French resistance, and an inspiration to others in her own right. Bowers tells her story in a classic three-act structure: the development of a young girl into an important member of the resistance, her arrest by the Nazis and imprisonment in the infamous Ravensbruck concentration camp, and her post-war activism, first on behalf of other women who suffered in the camps and later on behalf of the poor and displaced. At each step, Bowers sets De Gaulle’s story within its larger context, using the story of one extraordinary woman to illuminate the story of those around her.

Personally, I found the post-war part of the story the most fascinating in some ways because it was all new to me. It had never occurred to me that women who escaped the camps would have troubled re-integrating into society after the war. A serious lack of imagination on my part. It’s easy to forget that war leaves a long tail of destruction.

The General’s Niece is by turns gripping, heart-breaking, horrifying, and inspirational. If you’re interested in World War II, women’s history, or stories of resistance, put it on your list.

(Mark your calendars. Paige Bowers is going to be part of a special project celebrating Women History Month here on the Margins.)

The Great Silence

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Whether you know it as Armistice Day, Poppy Day, Remembrance Day or Veterans’ Day, November 11 is a time to honor those who died in war and thank those who served.

The day of remembrance has its roots in the end of World War I. The war ended on November 11, 1918. When the word reached England that the the armistice had been signed, the country broke out into a spontaneous party. (The Savoy Hotel alone lost 2700 smashed glasses to the celebration.) No stiff upper lip allowed.

When the first anniversary of the Armistice drew near, dancing in the streets of a post-war world no longer seemed appropriate . Neither did letting the day go unnoticed. Some assumed that special church services were the proper response. Australian soldier and journalist Edward George Honey wrote a letter to the London Evening News suggesting a moment of silence “on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”. He asked for “Five silent minutes of national remembrance…Church services too, if you will, but in the street, the home, the theatre, anywhere, indeed, where Englishmen and their women chance to be, surely in this five minutes of bitter-sweet silence there will be service enough.”

Honey asked for five minutes; he got two. King George V called for all Britons to stop their normal activities “so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of every one may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”

If you can, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month–pause for a moment. If you can’t? Thank a veteran. Buy a poppy, if you can find one. Pray for peace.