May the circle be broken: Women’s lives and history

“There are no women geniuses,” a male friend announced to me one evening. I began to list a few women I considered geniuses–Hildegard von Bingen, for example, and Claira Schumann and Virginia Woolf came to mind instantly–and he replied that he didn’t know any of them (this was in a non-English speaking context) and so they couldn’t be geniuses.

That circular argument is hard to break. And it stands in so much of our historical writing, regardless of era, geographic location, subject.

But women were there. And no, not only in the domestic worlds that have been so readily and helpfully explored by recent generations of (mostly female) historians. There were women, all over the world, active in the public sphere in different ways. In politics, the arts, the sciences. Even in war.

And yet, and yet… where are they? Why have you never heard of them?

There is a reason: They were considered unimportant. They were ignored. Many of them are still ignored, or put in the current equivalent of the “bluestocking” box. These were not wildly unusual exceptions. (There are too many to be flukes.) Some of them were even prominent and somewhat respected in their times… yet still. Still. The cycle of obscurity must be broken, and not because we’re grasping at feminist equality straws, but because these women existed and lived and contributed. Because even as everything was arrayed against them, they did it. That is truly inspiring.

Does this sound like I’m positing some conspiracy of silence, a purposeful or conscious cold-shoulder close out of ladies of meaningful accomplishment? No. The circle works differently: You are simply not there. No women can be geniuses, and therefore female geniuses evaporate. They are possible, in that they can be imagined. And maybe in rare instances, they might pop into being, only to waft away at the first real critique of their work and life. Like cold lava, like a blazing bright darkness, they simply cannot be. And thus the circle closes.

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