Know your history? From Victorians to housewives, five myths exposed
The idea that by scientists looking at the DNA from Viking skeletons. They found that women would accompany them on their travels, possibly bringing their children too. Many other groups and individuals through the ages have been wrongly remembered. Here are my picks for some other troublesome misrepresentations of popular history.
are often remembered as the only feminists in the period before and during the first world war. This is a troubling oversimplification. It suggests that feminism was a united and single-minded force, when in fact the suffrage movement was deeply divided over tactics and aims, and the whole women’s movement was even more profoundly diverse in its goals, politics and ethics. The war especially from those who suspended their campaigns to support the war effort.
There is also the belief that once , feminism faded away for decades, only to re-emerge in the 1970s. Historians of the interwar period are finding more evidence against this assumption, showing that the women’s movement achieved some of in the period after the first world war: in maternity rights, international politics, and continued gains in suffrage, to name a few. Our image of the suffragettes should see them as part of a movement that never disappeared.
There is a huge historical misconception that women have only worked in the very recent past, emerging from their suburban housewifery after the second world war to begin their climb towards the glass ceiling. But in reality, the modern idea of the is an invention. The historian Amy Erickson estimates that up to . In the 19th century, despite our image of the passive Victorian woman in the private sphere, the majority of women worked outside the home.
And we shouldn’t overlook the fact that housework is indeed work: enabling others to earn money through the unremunerated care of children and the management of the household and community economy. From seamstresses in the 1700s to the campaigns of the 1970s, housewives have never been quite how popular history often presents them.
It’s been a century or more since historians began dismantling certain Victorian stereotypes, but misconceptions about the Victorians are tenacious indeed. As Lesley Hall’s excellent collection of demonstrates, has been seriously misrepresented in pop culture. They didn’t cover their piano legs, they were responsible for a huge increase in publications (pornographic as well as scientific) about sex, and many of them countenanced government-regulated prostitution (for a short while) in Britain and (for a long while) in their colonies. These, perhaps, were not the “Victorian values” that Margaret Thatcher was so keen on.
North America’s indigenous peoples
This is an issue that is very important to me as a Canadian living in the UK. While Canada is far from commendable in its representation and treatment of its aboriginal peoples, I hadn’t been invited to a “” fancy dress party until I moved here. From to the commercialisation of “Native American spirituality”, North America’s indigenous peoples are portrayed, incorrectly, as a historically homogenous and primitive group. Even the histories that acknowledge colonial atrocities render native cultures as passive, naive or overpowered by technologically superior Europeans.
But first-contact cultures had more accurate weapons, were active in managing the land, frequently engaged in warfare and had complex exchange systems. Despite the calamity of first contact and continued mistreatment, different groups of indigenous people remained politically and militarily important in North America for many centuries after Europeans arrived. Today, in Canada alone, , who all have different relationships with each other and with the government. While many are happy to engage with nostalgic misrepresentations of past indigenous cultures in the form of Disney princesses and Halloween costumes, they are far less likely to discuss their experiences of inequality and injustice today.
The most grievous historical misrepresentation here, therefore, is that we are so much more willing to acknowledge the indigenous past of North America, rather than the indigenous present.
Catherine the Great
The story goes that murdered her husband to gain the throne, and, even more memorably, was a nymphomaniac who died after being crushed by a horse she was endeavouring to have sex with. Most well-read people know by now that none of this is actually true, but I’ve still picked this one because of what it says about the way popular myth and history treat powerful women. The way that Catherine the Great was sexually pathologised to such graphic extremes, and painted as a power-hungry murderer, shows us that the anger and ridicule directed at women in power has historical depth as well as present-day resonance.
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