Why the women of the past are so important

Picture: Jonathan Tallon/Shutterstock.com
Picture: Jonathan Tallon/Shutterstock.com

When she was three, my daughter Matilda informed me over breakfast that girls couldn't be doctors. I nearly choked on my cereal. Although I argued with her, she had the certainty of all three-year-olds and would not be convinced.

I was reminded once again of how far we still have to go in achieving true gender equality in the workplace.

One hundred years ago, women activists, and some men, sought to end unequal pay. They turned optimistically to new institutions such as the International Labour Organisation. This history is worth recording, for it reminds us just how long this struggle has been going on, and just how complex the problem is.

There is no simple solution. Even with equal pay legislation in place for 50 years, the division of occupations by gender, the over-representation of women in part-time work, career breaks for caring responsibilities and a range of other factors mean that we still do not have true equality for women workers.

History can help us understand much of this. Take the division of occupations by gender; a study of women's working lives in the past helps us understand that categories of "traditional" and 'non-traditional' work for women are not "natural" but are instead the product of human decisions and of the erasure of histories of women workers.

We are also starting to use history to help bridge the gap. Current work by the Women's Engineering Society in the UK, for example, aims to increase women's participation in STEM careers by demonstrating the substantial achievements of women engineers in the past.

It is not simply that engineering is a suitable occupation for women today, it has always been suitable for women.

Women have excelled in engineering and will continue to do so; but how many talented women have been lost to the profession because they saw it as not for them, or struggled in a workplace culture antagonistic to their presence?

Last Christmas, a good friend sent my daughter a book, Marvellous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor (by Emily McCully). This true story of a 19th-century girl who loved to invent and make things, has captivated my daughter's imagination.

We come to understand and interpret our world through stories, and in faithfully telling the stories of the women of the past, historians have an important duty to the women of the future.

Dr Emma Robertson is a senior history lecturer at La Trobe University