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Tuesday, December 14, 1999Women in history, revised
Who is the most important person of the past 100 years? President Bill Clinton was asked the question last week, and named President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his candidate. It wasn't a particularly convincing entry. (There are at least a dozen people who top FDR on my list: Thomas Edison, Sigmund Freud, V.I. Lenin, Kaiser Wilhelm, Pablo Picasso, John Maynard Keynes, Giulio Douhet -- the man who first proposed that wars could be won by bombing cities from the air -- Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman, plus the three discoverers of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain.) Still, the president's suggestion was a reasonable essay in a harmless historical parlour game.
Unfortunately, most of this president's adventures in history are neither reasonable nor harmless, and one of the worst is scheduled to begin early in the new year: the March 2000 Women's History Month organized by Hillary Clinton's Millennium Council.
Eighteen months ago, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Mr. Clinton convened a commission to discuss how women's contributions to American history could be recognized during the year 2000 celebrations. It sounded like a perfectly respectable exercise in commemoration and maybe also a mildly cynical payback to Mr. Clinton's sorely tested feminist constituency. But even by the politicized standards of Mr. Clinton's Washington, there was something peculiar about this commission from the beginning.
For starters, of the nine people chosen to recommend how women's history ought to be celebrated, only one was a professional historian, Dr. Barbara Goldsmith, author of a well-received biography of the 19th-century courtesan turned crusader for free love, Victoria Woodhull. The others were a dubious and even disturbing assortment. The commission was co-chaired by Ann Lewis, known to cable television-watchers throughout the United States as one of the president's most tireless and shameless apologists throughout the Lewinsky scandal.
Another appointee: Johnetta D. Cole, a former president of Spellman College and Hillary Clinton's first choice for U.S. secretary of education in 1993. Dr. Cole's nomination had to be dropped when critics unearthed her service on the executive of the Soviet-funded U.S. Peace Council and the pro-Cuban Venceremos Brigades. Dr. Cole's vocal support for the Marxist dictatorship of Grenada's Maurice Bishop did not help.
Four of the remaining seven commission members appear to have owed their appointments to crass ethnic politics: Elaine Kim, an associate dean at Berkeley and a professor of Asian-American studies; Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic female astronaut; LaDonna Harris, an American Indian activist; and Irene Wurtzel, the wife of a prominent Jewish businessman in Virginia.
The commission delivered its recommendations in March, 1999. On their face, they sound unobjectionable: Historical documents pertaining to women should be preserved, sites where women did memorable things should be marked with plaques, monuments should be erected to noteworthy women. But there is an agenda here, and Commissioner Elaine Kim was unguarded enough to reveal it. "[I]t's the general responsibility of this [commission] to work to bring women, who have generally been 'the losers of history,' into the centre of the discourse by unearthing buried histories and shining floodlights on what have been called 'subjugated knowledges.' Understanding and being able to contextualize ourselves in history will empower us as individuals and enables us to do greater good for others."
All too often, however, the goals of empowerment and do-gooding conflict with the obligation to tell the truth about the past. Consider the most visible triumph of the new women's history: the dollar coin the Clinton administration will mint next year. On the coin's obverse face will be a young Shoshone Indian woman named Sacagawea. Students are being taught that she guided the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific in 1805-06, and so implicitly is every user of the new coin. In reality, Sacagawea is a minor character in the Lewis and Clark story, as Stephen Ambrose (delicately) allows in his definitive history of the expedition. Her elevation into a heroine on a par with those other faces on the money, Washington, Lincoln, Franklin is not history: It's deliberate myth-spinning.
And it's precisely that kind of myth-spinning that the Clinton commissioners are calling for on a massive scale in March 2000 -- which is shaping up to be not a celebration of the real achievements of women, but an ideologically motivated state-sponsored rewriting of the past.
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