Footballers, fossil hunters and warrior queens: the women history forgot
Kate Mosse, founder of the Women’s prize and #WomanInHistory campaign, explains how a new generation of writers is putting female contributions on record
The last words of “Diving into the Wreck”, the title poem in the 1973 collection by the great American feminist thinker, poet and essayist Adrienne Rich, are these: “a book of myths / in which / our names do not appear.” I can’t remember when I first read the poem – certainly not when it was written, I’d have been only 10 or 11. More likely in the early 80s, when living away from home for the first time, in those heady days of “discovering” feminism, of Reclaim the Night marches, of consciousness-raising groups. That’s when I learned – rather late in the day – to look at the world through a wider lens, to read more widely and to seek out books not on the syllabus. To listen to different voices, learn from other times. To attempt to stand in other people’s shoes.
At the heart of Rich’s poem – and, indeed, the whole fierce, beautiful, collection about women’s liberation and the silencing of women’s voices – is a question. What is history? Who decides which stories are told and which are peripheral? Who judges what matters, whose views should be heard? Who is it that chooses the names to be written in the “book of myths”? When Diving into the Wreck won the National Book Award for poetry in 1974, Rich shared it with her fellow nominees Audre Lorde and Alice Walker (they had made the decision to do this, whoever won) and accepted it on behalf of “all the women whose voices have gone and still go unheard …”