From “The Kennedys: A Fumbled Handoff of the Torch,” by Sam Tanenhaus:
In 1963, shortly after her husband was murdered, Mrs. Kennedy granted an interview with Mr. White, who had covered the Kennedy election and then written his classic account, “The Making of the President, 1960.”
“Once, the more I read of history the more bitter I got,” Mrs. Kennedy reflected. Her husband, who in childhood had devoured romantic history books, viewed it very differently. “For Jack, history was full of heroes. And if it made him this way — if it made him see the heroes — maybe other boys will see.”
“Maybe other boys will see?” That seems to sum it all up, doesn’t it? History is about heroes, heroes are men, and heroes are meant to inspire boys. This is not a criticism of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis–she experienced reading history as alienating or even embittering, rather than inspiring, and that’s the fault of historians. I think her comments about the gendering of history are accurate even today, 45 years later.
This is why I’m interested in women’s biography right now–for a long time I’ve worried that my biography of Esther Wheelwright won’t be perceived as theoretically sophisticated enough, or cool enough. But women’s history is still such a relatively new field, with many discoveries to be made. Discovering new women’s biographies may in fact be a much more radical undertaking than it appears to be on the surface. I’ve argued all along that what may seem to be the most traditional and staid of all historical genres might in fact be dramatically subversive both for history and biography when a little girl and/or a woman is at the center of inquiry.
Biography insists that its subject is of paramount importance to history. Biography is powerful: Cataloging the lives of the saints worked pretty well in popularizing Roman Catholicism and moving it from the margins to the center of European history and culture. If more women’s biographies are written, read, and incorporated into school curricula, then the argument about who and what is important in history will be won. We don’t have to write “sheroic” history–that is too flat and old-hat for me, not to mention an approach that usually privileges the overly privileged and stories that conform to the old Whig trajectory. We must simply write about women’s lives unapologetically, and with specificity, nuance, and telling detail that puts them at the center of history rather than at the margins.
History isn’t therapy–or at least, it doesn’t function very efficiently as therapy. It is, however, ideology, and from my perspective, women’s history hasn’t begun to make a dent on what most people see as “History.”