This weekend I was schmoozing at an event when some guy asked me what kind of history I study. I said “I’m currently researching the role of gender in Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich,” and he replied “oh you just threw gender in there for fun, huh?” and shot me what he clearly thought to be a charming smile.
The reality is that most of our understandings of history revolve around what men were doing. But by paying attention to the other half of humanity our understanding of history can be radically altered.
For example, with Jewish emigration out of the Third Reich it is just kind of assumed that it was a decision made by a man, and the rest of his family just followed him out of danger. But that is completely inaccurate. Women, constrained to the private social sphere to varying extents, were the first to notice the rise in social anti-Semitism in the beginning of Hitler’s rule. They were the ones to notice their friends pulling away and their social networks coming apart. They were the first to sense the danger.
German Jewish men tended to work in industries which were historically heavily Jewish, thus keeping them from directly experiencing this “social death.” These women would warn their husbands and urge them to begin the emigration process, and often their husbands would overlook or undervalue their concerns (“you’re just being hysterical” etc). After the Nuremberg Laws were passed, and after even more so after Kristallnacht, it fell to women to free their husbands from concentration camps, to run businesses, and to wade through the emigration process.
The fact that the Nazis initially focused their efforts on Jewish men meant that it fell to Jewish women to take charge of the family and plan their escape. In one case, a woman had her husband freed from a camp (to do so, she had to present emigration papers which were not easy to procure), and casually informed him that she had arranged their transport to Shanghai. Her husband—so traumatized from the camp—made no argument. Just by looking at what women were doing, our understanding of this era of Jewish history is changed.
I have read an article arguing that the Renaissance only existed for men, and that women did not undergo this cultural change. The writings of female loyalists in the American Revolutionary period add much needed nuance to our understanding of this period. The character of Jewish liberalism in the first half of the twentieth century is a direct result of the education and socialization of Jewish women. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the point.
So, you wanna understand history? Then you gotta remember the ladies (and not just the privileged ones).
Yup - and our understanding of the holocaust itself is hugely effected by gender. Why? because the VAST majority of holocaust survivors were men. Women were several times more likely to die in the camps than men were, because they were not considered as useful for slave labour so were much less likely to be kept alive. Thus most of our direct, eye-witness accounts of what the holocaust actually WAS come from a very specific demographic: Jewish men aged 16-40, the demographic the Nazis were most likely to use in their labour camps instead of gassing. The vast majority of those outside of this demographic became what Primo Levi, a survivor, dubbed ‘the drowned’ - people whose experiences are rendered totally inaccessible because they died in numbers so vast that we don’t even have individually marked graves for them.
Those women who did survive were also less likely to be listened to, less likely to have access to a method by which to record and broadcast their experiences, since those who studied the holocaust in its immediate aftermath were also almost all male academics operating under particular biases.