Monday, February 12, 2007

A Word About "Herstory"

Below, an e-mail I wrote to a friend of mine today after he shared with me an e-mail from a local non-partisan organization called the Paradise City Forum, in which the term "herstory" was used in a way that irked me. As you can see, I had a word or two to say about it.

Hi, Daryl,

Thanks for forwarding this one, and congratulations on being part of such a successful alternative forum for dissemination of information--and dialog. I'm so glad the forum exists and that the advisory committee is so committed to its success.

I have a small concern I'd like to raise that has very little to do with the content of the e-mail, but which, nevertheless, is important to me. I was offended by the use of the term "herstory" in the Forum's e-mail, and I would like to make a case for its removal in future correspondence of this nature. Unfortunately, I don't have time to become involved in an extended debate about it; I am not seeking a formal response. But I would like to share with you the grounds of my objection, and perhaps, if you feel it's appropriate, you will take it up with the committee at the next opportunity.

I am offended by the term "herstory" in this context because it is inappropriate and misleading.
For starters, the word "herstory" is based on a false etymology. The word history (from the Ancient Greek στορία, or istoria, meaning "a learning or knowing by inquiry") is etymologically unrelated to the English possessive pronoun his. In French, for instance, histoire means "story," but has no association with men because the French pronoun is not spelled "h-i-s." It's a *coincidence* that in our language the letters h-i-s are a male possessive pronoun and also appear in the word we use for our record of things past. Just as the "m-a-n" in maniac does not imply a maleness to the condition of mania, for instance. (If one traces the etymology back far enough, one can find the word "histor" in Ancient Greek, which means "learned man," but which is connected more to the act of inquiry, which makes one learned than it is to what has become our possessive male pronoun "his.")

The original intent of this neologism ("herstory") was to draw attention to the sexism that was (and still frequently is) both intentionally and unintentionally present in the telling of history. It is appropriate to use it in situations when one is intentionally trying to mock or counteract a male-centric version of history, or when one is telling a particularly feminist version of events.

I am troubled by its appearance in the Forum e-mail, because, as far as I know, what was chronicled in that portion of the e-mail was the Forum's history, not its "herstory." Why insinuate that sexism is at hand?

In 1976, in Words and Women, the authors clarified the meaning of the newly coined term in this way, "When women in the movement use 'herstory,' their purpose is to emphasize that women's lives, deeds, and participation in human affairs have been neglected or undervalued in standard histories."

Is that what happened with the Forum? Is that the intended meaning of the word?

It is also considered a way to describe feminist efforts against a male-centered canon. But, again--is that what happened here?

I suppose that, put simply, I am trying say that the portion of the e-mail labeled "Forum Herstory" was really just the Forum History. It's not his story or her story; it's your group's history, presumably told in a non-sexist way. Why assert something else? Why alienate persons of any gender? Why imply that the story is only hers, or that some correction needs to be made to a sexist version already in existence? It's a step in the wrong direction, and the misuse of a term that is inflammatory and problematic.

Certainly, you wouldn't change "opinions on many quality of life issues" to "opinions on womany quality of life issues." Or change every use of the word "this" to "thers?"

As I said, I don't wish to become embroiled in a debate over the issue; I simply wish to make a note of my objection and to request that the committee give more thought to the use of the word "herstory" in its correspondence.

I would like to see "history" used in its proper context, particularly since what I believe has taken place here is what we all hope true accounts of history will be--a fair and balanced record of a process that was inclusive of all sexes (and classes, races, etc.)

If the term "history" is really not acceptable to the committee, perhaps you will at least consider using some non-gendered synonym in its place. (Forum Origins, Forum Record of Things Past, Forum Genesis?)

Thank you for your time and best wishes,


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