The Myth of Historical Progress

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progressmythFurther to my thoughts a while back on prototype theory, there was another topic that came up in my 'Where Have All the Women Gone?' lecture last year that I felt worth airing here. This one is not merely a general theory that we can usefully apply to music - it is something that I discovered first in a musical context.

So, picture the scene. It is July 1991, and I am recently home from the Music and Gender conference at King's College, London that finally gave me permission to have all the feminist thoughts I had been trying to have as an undergraduate, but which had been politely but firmly dismissed by my teachers.* I am all fired up to start filling in all the gaps of my education, and am starting with the limited resources available in the music section of Fleet Library, that being what I can get to from my parents' house on foot.

The music section here is not large, but it is existent, and in some ways its non-specialist nature is apt for the task I set myself - discovering how many and which female composers are represented in the reference materials available. (Answer: many fewer than male composers, but many more than were ever mentioned in the lectures on my recently completed BA. Of which I think Elisabeth Jacquette de la Guerre was the sole example. Oh, and Hildegard von Bingen of course, though the historical significance of being the first composer whose name we know was still attributed to Leonin. If you're not outraged by that, check the dates.)

Fleet Library at that time had copies of three successive editions of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians: one from the early 20th century, one from 1954, and what was at that point the most current, the 1980 'new' Grove. And tracing through these volumes revealed an interesting facet of women's representation.

Each edition contained a fair smattering of women - a small minority, to be sure, but there were some. These women were nearly all alive at the time of publication. And the majority from c. 1910 were absent from the 1954 edition, and likewise many in the 1954 edition were dropped by 1980. This was when I grasped, emotionally, that history isn't a neutral collection of facts about the past, but a collection of facts that people have actively selected. Or, in this case, deselected.

(An interesting case in the 1954 edition was Ethel Smyth - clearly too big a figure to be dropped, but nobody had bothered actually to update the entry to put it into the past tense following her death a decade earlier.)

Now, to the extent that that questions of equality or inequality in the music profession were considered at that time, the orthodoxy was that you didn't get women in the musical canon because things were unequal in the past, but we don't have to worry about that any more in the modern world.

People would point to the obstacles that faced women of the past - parental opposition, lack of access to training, excessive child-bearing - and treat that as the explanation for the almost complete absence of women from the history books. The implication was that as Modern Women, we weren't subject to such pressures, so there was nothing stopping us achieving anything we wanted, and can we stop talking about feminism now and get on with Business As Usual please.

That is, the discourse relied entirely on the Myth of Historical Progress: the idea that conditions for women have been getting steadily better over time. Any remaining inequalities are the last relics of a bygone era and will wither away in just a jiffy.

Now, there are ways in which this is true. We have the vote now, for instance. We can own property in our own names, even if we're married. The House of Lords ruled that men aren't entitled to rape their wives way back in 1991...just a few months after the scene in the library took place...

But any digging beneath the surface of that neat historical narrative - or indeed, simply living long enough to see cultural change - shows that progress is not linear, it is not constant, and it can't be relied upon as permanent. In 1803 the Code Napoléon - the model for law across much of 19th-century Europe - downgraded French women's status as citizens significantly from where it had been prior to the French Revolution. Or, closer to home: just compare the number of female cabinet ministers in the UK government between when I started this blog and now to see clear regression.

Every gain is hard won, and has to be defended against backlash. Dinosaurs don't die out, taking the Bad Old Days with them; instead people you thought were allies turn grumpy and misogynist as they age.

The problem with the Myth of Historical Progress isn't that it's over-simplistic. We all know that apparently simple lines have all kinds of hidden wiggles in them, and we accept the simplifications on the basis of manageability and the need of only so much granularity for information to be useful.

No, the problem is that it inspires false optimism. It provides the grounds for people to say: yes, it used to be bad, but look, there are a few women finally succeeding today where there weren't any in the past. So you needn't worry your pretty little heads about encountering any sexism. Subtext: therefore if you fail it's just that you're not good enough.

The Myth of Historical Progress is what underpins every generation's belief that they are the first. We are the pioneers, we think. There may be some structural inequalities left to deal with, some personal obstacles, some sexual harassment, but it's getting better, we think. We can do this, and win, and be remembered.

In 1991, as I looked at the names of all those women who had once been respected professionals of their own era, but who had been quietly dropped from the history books after their deaths, I realised that they would have thought the same thing. Back in 1910, they would be feeling awash with modernity and promise; they too would have felt like pioneers. They wouldn't know that their successes would be forgotten.

The Myth of Historical Progress is how a discipline justifies the systematic removal of its female contributors from its official histories. Mostly its invocation is just laziness: I don't know of any women in my discipline from the past, therefore there can't have been any, and I guess this is why. But to take this mental shortcut is to be complicit with the likes of those Grove editors who actively removed women from one edition to the next.

We are not pioneers. Many women have come before us in this struggle. Anyone who tries to tell us we're doing anything particularly new or special are playing a game of divide and conquer, and should be treated with the same suspicion as any man who tries to pay a woman the 'compliment' that she's 'not like ordinary women'.


* Credit where credit is due. Whilst I was mostly discouraged from pursuing feminist themes, both while as an undergraduate and subsequently when putting together a PhD proposal, my teachers did approve funding for me to attend this conference from the Jack Britton Fund. Without this, my life would have been very different.

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