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What about her story?

Recent century/millennium lists of "important people" in history leave out all the women

Tuesday, March 09, 1999

By L. A. Johnson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

If a woman achieves greatness in relative obscurity and no one publicly heralds the achievement, did it even happen? Is she remembered? Not necessarily. Some historians can't see the estrogen for the testosterone. Like lots of groups releasing "Most Important People" or "Most Influential People" of the century/millennium lists, the United States Historical Society recently released two: the 15 Most Important People of the 20th Century and the 15 Most Important People of the Second Millennium.

Neither list includes a woman. Not one. No ovaries, anywhere.

"It's appalling," says Kathleen Blee, a University of Pittsburgh sociology professor who also oversees the women's studies program. "Not surprising, but appalling."

    The lists...

The 15 "Most Important People of the Second Millennium"

(listed alphabetically, not by rank)

Winston Churchill

Christopher Columbus


Charles Darwin

Albert Einstein

Sigmund Freud

Johannes Gutenberg

Thomas Jefferson

Abraham Lincoln

Martin Luther

Isaac Newton

Napoleon Bonaparte

William Shakespeare

Otto von Bismarck

George Washington

The 15 "Most Important People of the 20th century"

(listed alphabetically, not by rank)

Winston Churchill

Thomas Edison

Albert Einstein

Henry Ford

Sigmund Freud

Mohandas K. Gandhi

Adolf Hitler

Martin Luther King

Nelson Mandela

Mao Zedong

Pablo Picasso

Pope John XXIII

Franklin D. Roosevelt

Joseph Stalin

Orville and Wilbur Wright


"History is not God-given or handed down in stone. Somebody has to decide what's important," says Karen Staser, president of the National Museum of Women's History in Alexandria, Va. "Historically, that has been in the hands of men, and they've often chosen in their own image and interest."

The Richmond, Va.-based historical society, more than 250,000 members strong, is a non-profit organization that works with museums, educational institutions, foundations and other organizations to authorize the reproduction of objects that have historic significance, artistic value and authenticity, such as Thomas Jefferson's telescope.

History scholars they're not. However, the society didn't make up the list all by its lonesome. It sent surveys to 150 college and university history department heads last year, asking them to select the 15 most important people of the century and the millennium.

Respondents picked from a list of 37 names on the 20th century survey and 45 names on the millennium survey. They also could write in names not listed.

Only 50 to 60 people returned the survey, says Martin Moran, the historical society's president.

"History is not objective. It's always filtered through a point of view, a particular lens, and women's experiences and contributions have typically been left out of the historical record," Staser says. "So, when they go ask these people a question like that, they're not even aware of women's true experience and contributions. They haven't been taught. They don't know."

These lists, and others like them, accurately reflect the way women are disregarded in history, she says.

"I don't blame [the society] at all. They're just the messenger. ...We just need a lot of educating going on here. We have a faulty educational system."

Marie Curie, Golda Meir, Mother Teresa, Eva Peron, Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher were among the 37 historic names on the 20th century survey. Catherine the Great, Marie Curie, Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette and Florence Nightingale were among the 45 historic names on the millennium survey.

None of them made the top 15 on either list.

"We don't have anybody [female] on the millennium questionnaire that isn't a queen or a health person," says Linda Rosenzweig, a Chatham College history professor who also teaches women's studies courses. "Look at the people. ...Three queens and two health people. It's OK for women to have been health-related people in our society, and queens we got by birth."

Everyone has an idea about which women should have been considered for selection or actually selected for the lists.

"What did Marie Antoinette do, besides get her head cut off?" says Kim Gandy, the National Organization for Women's executive vice president in Washington, D.C. "If you're going to use a martyr, what about Joan of Arc? Where's Grace Hopper, the mother of the computer? There would be no Bill Gates if it weren't for Grace Hopper."

Hopper, who died in 1992, created COBOL, the first user-friendly business software program, in the 1950s.

  Women's History Month Web sites

Gale Group Women's History Month Resource Center

National Women's History Project

Women's History Month

Michigan Women's Studies Association

University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender

University of Michigan Center for the Education of Women

Other sites of interest:


Many consider the exclusion of at least one of the American suffragists - Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Lucretia Mott - the biggest oversight.

"You'd think people responsible for pushing through the biggest advancement in democracy in the world would make the list," says Reid Andrews, Pitt's history department chairman.

Oh, and they were suffragists, by the way, not suffragettes, which was pejorative and tantamount to calling a woman senator a senatorette, Staser says.

"It is incomprehensible that women such as Queen Elizabeth I or Mary Wollstonecraft would not appear on the second millennium list of most important people or that women such as Mother Teresa or Rosa Parks would not appear on the 20th century list," says Carlow College women's studies director Camilla Griggers.

Blee would have liked to see Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi or Queen Victoria on the list.

"There's an incredible bias toward politicians and inventors," she says. "You could argue writers had a greater influence than some of these people, for example perhaps Virginia Woolf."

Writers who advanced revolutionary ideas about the rights of women, such as Woolf and Wollstonecraft, weren't famous in their own times, Rosenzweig says.

In 1792, Wollstonecraft penned "A Vindication of the Rights of Women," which argued for equality of education and opportunity for men and women, employment for single women, and intellectual companionship as the ideal of marriage.

"Importance gets carried on over centuries in Western civilization," Rosenzweig says. "If their own time didn't place them in an area of importance, they've just been recovered now by people who are digging back in history."

Lack of women on the lists isn't the only complaint.

"I don't know how you can come up with a list of 15 people that doesn't have a single person outside the Americas or Western Europe - as if the rest of the world didn't exist," Blee says.

Moran doesn't deny the bias apparent in both lists.

"This is a very Western, very U.S. type of thing. If you did a survey like this in Afghanistan, you'd probably have a very different list," Moran says. "Time magazine is doing it. CNN is doing it, and they all have their perspective. It would be a wonderful thing for women to do."

Most of these types of lists are just silly, says Peter Stearns, dean of Carnegie Mellon University's humanities and social sciences college. He hasn't seen one yet that has knocked him over with its balance and insight.

In addition to the typical Western civilization bias, there's a chronological imbalance with the millennium lists because of "relative little awareness that anything of importance happened before 1500," Stearns says.

Blee believes the lists reflect the extent to which American education continues to be very European-, male- and white-centered. Such lists better reflect upon the people making them than what is historically important.

While finding these types of lists depressing, Rosenzweig is less harsh.

"One of the problems isn't the fault of the organization or the 50 to 60 respondents, but the fact that women weren't put into positions," she says. "This is a public list - public achievement in the public realm. If you didn't have women out there in those roles, you aren't going to have them in the questionnaire or in the responses."

Stearns agreed.

"In one sense, there haven't been that many cosmically important women because women were being kept out of areas of power," he says.

The "Most Important" or "Most Influential" lists in 2999 will look the same unless what's in school textbooks, what's taught in schools, what's in museums, what's memorialized in statues or monuments, even the visages that grace coins, include more women, Staser says.

"Culture is created and it's addressing those organizations and aspects of our culture that have the power to shape the culture," Staser says. "History is a powerful tool. It's used to shape our values and that translates into whose work is valued and whose is not."

Old grade-school readers portrayed women only as passive mothers or teachers. Boys, unlike girls, were active. Men were always professional and portrayed as doing something important. The women's movement lobbied hard to change women's image in those textbooks so that young women would see themselves as doers, not just receivers and caretakers.

"It's a lot better in the first-grade readers, but not a whole lot better in the 10th-grade history books," Gandy says. "It's part of our job to impart a more thorough history to our sons and daughters so that in the next century, we read a history book that includes all of us."

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