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Writing Women Back Into History

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

Today we are all spick and span

But those who raised us stand in tatters.

From “Lament of the Parents” by Nontsizi Mgqwetho – Xhosa Poet of the early 20th Century

I hated history at school. Yet, I so wish I had learnt more about it from someone with a gift for story-telling or a deep interest in human behaviour, someone who could have made the lives and experiences of ancient people pertinent to my own story. I disliked history because of all the facts I had to remember. I was a logical and creative thinker, not a memoriser and none of my history teachers showed me the logic, economics and delightful human complexity of centuries past.

Perhaps I also disliked history because I could not see myself reflected in it and because it all seemed to revolve around men, conflict and conquest. I am not an ardent feminist, but one of the deep longings of my soul has been to find more women who could help me navigate the tough challenges I have chosen to embrace. I really need to hear the voices of courageous women who have achieved seemingly impossible things whilst at the same time contributing positively within their home environments.

We owe it to future generations to remember and to write unwritten stories back into history, so that we can honour their heroes and so that we can learn from them. But, to recapture the narratives of gallant, influential and difference-making women requires harder work than doing the same for men. Women have simply not been effectively scribed into history, and many have been forgotten in the same way that their dates of birth were, as recently as the 19th century.

Our documented history records what was of value to those with the skill, means and will to record it. Did women lack the skill, the means or the will to capture the stories of those of their number who influenced the human trajectory? I cannot help wondering why our great grandmothers and their great grandmothers let this happen and what we can do to ensure that this ancient trend stops in this generation.

I am really keen to hear any stories which you may have of unsung historical women or ideas you have for promoting their voices. Please mail me –


Oplund, J., 2007. The Nation’s Bounty: The Xhosa Poetry of Nontsizi Mgqwetho. Wits University Press.

Image by: Brigitte Werner

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