5 March 2019

Utrecht’s gender researchers reflect on the effect of historiography on the perspective on emancipation

© iStockphoto.com

8 March marks International Women’s Day. On this day, themes like economic independence, solidarity, and women’s movement from past and present are highlighted. This year, women’s day also celebrates the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the Netherlands. Utrecht University’s Gender and Diversity Hub actively investigates marginalised histories in order to put them in the limelight. In light of International Women’s Day, Rosemarie Buikema, Katrine Smiet, and Berteke Waaldijk talk about unheard stories, historiography, and the enslaved Sojourner Truth.

Sojourner Truth. Source: Library Congres

The story of Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was an enslaved black woman. After New York abolished slavery in 1827, Truth opened a legal case against her former owner for selling her son, whom he had also enslaved. Against all odds, Truth wrote history by winning the case: it was the first time a freed slave won a legal case against their owner. In the following years, Truth was involved with abolitionist movements and became a pioneer of women’s suffrage. Even today, Truth is still known for her speech ‘Ain’t I a woman’, in which she posed the rhetorical question: Who counts as a woman? Being both black and woman, Truth encounters double discrimination.

Sojourner Truth’s story reminds us of the fact that women’s movements, past and present, should always assess what group of women they are addressing exactly
Lecturer Graduate Gender Programme

Exclusion within women's emancipation

Katrine Smiet wrote her dissertation on Sojourner Truth and conducts research into the paths her story has taken. According to Smiet, Truth is as relevant today as she was 200 years ago: “Truth’s story shows us that women’s emancipation has always been intertwined with other themes. It reminds us of the fact that women’s movements, past and present, should always assess what group of women they are addressing exactly, and whether or not processes of exclusion are at play.” Rosemarie Buikema, professor of Gender Studies and the hub’s head researcher, adds: “Sojourner Truth is one of the first women to lay bare the fact that there are differences between the positions of women as well.”

Sojourner Truth shows that even a history that seems far removed from us, is actually very close to us. A thing from there and then can be brought to here and now by delving deeper into it.

Inspiration to American, as well as Dutch feminists

You might feel far removed from Truth’s story: it played on American soil, where slavery and dichotomies between the black and white population where far more visible. “Yes, it is an American history,” Smiet admits. “But there is definitely a connection to the Netherlands: Sojourner Truth grew up with a Dutch slave owner in the state of New York.

Her mother tongue was Dutch. This is particularly interesting, as it shows that a history that seems far removed from us, is actually very close. A thing from there and then can be brought to here and now by delving deeper into it. Truth’s story shows how, in the Netherlands, we try to distance ourselves from historical ‘dark pages’, such as colonialism and slavery, by considering those as very ‘American’. Her story travels, though; it has been an interesting tale for American, as well as Dutch feminists. The question ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ is still applicable today, not just in the nineteenth century.”

For some people, gender history is a story of slowly developing emancipation of women. But historians can dig deeper and publish stories that add another layer of, for instance, race or class to this one-dimensional story.
Prof. dr. Berteke Waaldijk
Professor of Language and Culture Studies

Historians can add more dimension to the story of emancipation

© iStockphoto.com/FernandoPodolski

Berteke Waaldijk conducts research into the history of sex, culture, and citizenship. She emphasizes that, besides differences between groups of women, Truth highlights another underrepresented aspect. “Western feminist historiography mostly looks at what women have done against gender oppression. This created a narrative of feminism as a ‘white’ history, while you could also write a history concerned with women pointing to a combination of race and gender, and sometimes class too. For some people, gender history is a story of slowly developing emancipation of women. But historians can dig deeper and publish stories can add another layer of, for instance, race or class to that one-dimensional story. When we do that, we broaden the scope with which people celebrating International Women’s Day look at the innumerable meanings of gender.”

History is an unfinished project. A reservoir of known phenomena, but also of unexplored events, relations, and possible stories.
Professor of Art, Culture and Diversity

Buikema agrees: “If we accept that there have been more events, contexts, lives, and people that have contributed to a more inclusive world than the one we see now, we can approach history as an unfinished project. A reservoir of known phenomena, but also of unexplored events, relations, and possible stories.”

“We want to celebrate and acknowledge differences, show new collaborations and not simply add people to the existing structures. We want to enable new repertoires. In order to achieve this, we need listen to stories that have thus far played mostly on the background,” Buikema concludes.

In honour of International Women’s Day, the Hub has organised several activities in collaboration with Utrecht University. In Centraal Museum Utrecht, you can experience the exhibition "What is Left Unseen". In cultural centre CASCO, an exposition has been organised in light of the GRACE-conference. Additionally, Faculty Hall hosts several lectures and debates.