The Trailblazing Women Who Re-Wrote the History Books

Who makes history? Who writes it, and who features in it? For women’s history month this year, Oprah Daily wants to honor women who have played roles outside the spotlight: grandmothers, resistance workers, and professors. We also are taking another look at figures we thought we knew, including the familiar faces of the Black Madonnas of France. One of the essays in this collection quotes Virginia Woolf, who said, “We look back through our mothers if we are women.” Look back with us at the remarkable women who made our history.

“We look back through our mothers if we are women,” Virginia Woolf insisted in her lecture “A Room of One’s Own,” originally delivered to a packed hall of women students at Cambridge University. Woolf urged her audience to go home and start to write about their lives, their friendships, their mothers and grandmothers. For centuries, Woolf argued, women had been deprived of knowing their history by historians who focused their research and narratives on the public deeds of great men. They failed to make room in their history books for the everyday activities of women, of no less importance—and human interest—than the stories of kings and battles. She argued that it’s in our own power to create a history and tradition of subversive writing in which future generations might recognize themselves.

virginia woolf

Virginia Woolf believed the history of ordinary women had been too long overlooked.

Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Woolf connected her frustration with the way history is written to her experiences walking around her beloved city of London. She encountered at every turn statues of great bearded statesmen, erected in celebration of their service to empire. In her essays and novels, she writes powerfully of the disconnect of trying to find her own voice in a city that makes clear in its very architecture that she isn’t part of its story and neither were the previous generations of women who might have offered her examples as she asked how she wanted to live. But there was one statue in London that Woolf loved: an anonymous woman kneeling down to pour water from an urn, outside the gates of the Foundling Hospital on Guilford Street in Bloomsbury. The statue, unobtrusive and peaceful, suggested, to Woolf, an alternative, hidden history waiting to be discovered. “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman,” she wrote. This idea became the basis of a book she was writing at the time of her death in 1941: an alternative history of England that would tell the story of Anonymous in English literature. Her plan was to lay bare the social forces that shape lives invisibly, giving some clear advantages and making life impossible for others of equal talent. This was the continuation of a theme central to A Room of Ones Own, where Woolf conjured a fictional sister of William Shakespeare, a brilliant and ambitious young woman who was refused every opportunity given to her brother, eventually dying, pregnant, and unknown, at a London crossroads.

Behind the well-known male gods familiar from Greek tragedy and epic poetry lay a forgotten history of mother-goddess worship.

In the early part of the 20th century, women writers working across disciplines—from historiography to detective fiction, poetry to political philosophy—were exploding conventions of what “women’s history” might look like. The poet Hilda Doolittle, known as H.D., was a devoted student of Greek literature. She imagined the voices of mythological heroines—Cassandra, Helen, Demeter—who had long been consigned to the role of muse, passive observers to their own stories. In H.D.’s extraordinary poetry, these women step out of the roles assigned to them and challenge their readers to imagine old tales from new perspectives. This project reached its greatest fulfillment in her fragmented epic Helen in Egypt, in which Helen of Troy embarks on a journey of psychoanalysis to reassemble the fragments of herself scattered in men’s stories. H.D. was greatly inspired by the work of historian Jane Harrison, a pioneering scholar whose work shook the classical establishment to its core. Harrison suggested that behind the well-known male gods familiar from Greek tragedy and epic poetry lay a forgotten history of mother-goddess worship. Harrison argued that women had once served as leaders in cults dedicated to powerful female goddesses, whose shrines and legends were subsequently reattributed to male gods, as women’s status in society was gradually eroded. Her meticulously researched work—drawing on cutting-edge discoveries from archaeological excavations ongoing across Greece and the Middle East—proved that women had been systematically written out of history.

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The poet Hilda Doolittle strove to give voice to mythological women.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Harrison had a friend and devotee in Woolf, who reread her work as she researched her own book. Woolf also recorded in her diary that she was rereading the work of economic historian Eileen Power, whose book Medieval People had been a surprise bestseller in publication in 1922.

Each was determined to write about women as they had not been written about before.

Power was rising through the ranks as a scholar of economic history at the prestigious London School of Economics. She was a stylish figure who enjoyed bewildering men by her ability to combine an interest in fashion with a deep academic rigor. One of the first works of social history, written at a time when few historians had thought to investigate the quotidian lives of women several centuries in the past, Power’s book set out to tell the everyday stories of ordinary people: the nuns balancing their account-books as they prepared a feast for a visiting abbot, the peasant farmer laboring in his field, the working mother snatching moments of respite while her children were at school. It was a vision of history focused not on “great men,” battles, and politics but on culture, women, and communities. Its emphasis on peace and community was highly suggestive to Woolf, writing her own history in 1941, under the shadow of a second European war.

eileen power

The historian and professor Eileen Power wrote a groundbreaking history of medieval life that examined everyday activity.

History collection 2016 / ALAMY

A determination to rethink how history is written is not the only connection between Woolf, H.D., Harrison, and Power. Between the two world wars, each of them happened to live in Mecklenburgh Square in London’s Bloomsbury, a bohemian area known for its cheap rents, artistic neighbors, and proximity to the British Museum Reading Room, where anyone could sign up free of charge to use its unrivaled collection of books and manuscripts. Intrigued by this coincidence, I wove their biographies into my own book, Square Haunting, which takes its cue from Woolf’s provocation, in A Room of Ones Own, to write the sort of history in which unknown women might find a sense of solidarity. In the square these writers forged experimental, expansive lives, doing their best to establish domestic arrangements that would enable—rather than curtail—the intellectual freedom they all cherished. Each was determined to write about women as they had not been written about before: By changing the way we think about the past, and radically reexamining whose stories are included in history, they have held up a mirror for the future so that women stretching boundaries in any field might know their forebears, and hear them cheering us on.

Francesca Wade has written for publications including the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, The Paris Review, The New York Times and Granta. She is editor of The White Review and a winner of the Biographers’ Club Tony Lothian Prize. She lives in London. Her book Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Warswas published in 2020.

Square Haunting

Francesca Wade Square Haunting

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