Stupid Question ™
April 5, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: Is “history” really a sexist word, as the feminist alternative “herstory” suggests?
—Bob, Columbus, Ohio
A: No, “history” isn’t a gender-biased word—but that’s not what “herstory” suggests anyway.
Many a thinly-disguised sexist these days bashes the use of “herstory” as a bad case of folk etymology and political correctness gone amok. But it’s the people making this elaborate defense of “history” who get it all wrong.
“Herstory” was coined, and is regularly used by feminists, as a deliberate and quite witty pun indicating not that the word “history” is sexist, but that the subject “history” is sexist. Which it inarguably still is, though less so than in 1970, when feminist author Robin Morgan coined the term in “Sisterhood Is Powerful.”
Morgan was (and is) not some kind of etymological scold. A published poet and novelist, she regularly employed quips and puns to subvert language and thereby reveal a social truth, or at least make the reader think in a different way. (She was full of bumpersticker fodder such as, “I’m a person trapped inside a woman’s body.”)
Most critics also imply that the word was meant to replace “history,” which also isn’t quite true. Most feminist scholars use the word as it was intended—as a catchy inspiration, not as a replacement for “history.” Which is to say, it’s not used much at all, except in book titles and T-shirts.
Granted, there are undoubtedly some overeager feminists who themselves miss the point and claim that “history” is literally sexist. (I think I may have run into one myself back in college.) But such idiosyncratic cases are vastly overstated by the type of people who complain about “herstory.” My quick survey of books that use the term “herstory”—from serious scholarship to loopy New Age quackery—in all cases found it being used as a verbal mind-blower, not as a literal piece of etymological correction.
(It is worth noting that some multicultural feminists object to “herstory” as outdated and, even worse, based on an English pun that can’t be translated into less dominant languages.)
To be on the safe side, here’s the history of “history” as often pedantically repeated by those who, for whatever reason, live in terror of “herstory”:
“History” comes straight from the Latin historia, which meant essentially what we mean today. It got to us through French; another version of the same French word, just with the soft “h” sound at the beginning dropped off, gave us the word “story.”
The “his” in “history” has nothing to do with the gender-specific possessive pronoun, which has completely different Gothic and Germanic roots.
(Ironically, however, the word does have passively sexist root, which no one ever seems to notice. Latin got historia from a similar Greek term meaning essentially the same thing, which in turn came from the root form histor, which meant a “wise man” or “judge,” in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary. This indeed implies that history was always written by men—but not that it was only about men, which is the point of Morgan’s English-based pun.)
All that being said, it is the “herstory”-bashers who are usually more in need of a history (and etymology) lesson. Ridiculing “herstory”-users as ignoramuses is in most cases pretty sexist itself.