Laurie Penny is a journalist and screenwriter from London.
A long time ago in England, a warrior queen called Boudicca ransacked the legions of Rome. She was strong, she was beautiful, and she apparently had a chariot with scythes sticking out of the wheels. When I first heard Boudicca’s story at the age of 8, I wanted to be just like her, or at least like her pictures: strong, resilient, with shiny hair streaming in a supernatural breeze of self-belief.
Except that that wasn’t the real story. The real story, as with so much of women’s history, was darker, more violent and frankly frightening. Boudicca did lead the armies of the Iceni tribe in the first century A.D., but it was only later that I learned why. The Romans, at least according to the historian Tacitus, stole her kingdom, assaulted her and raped her daughters. The bladed chariot was as mythical as the manicure she brandishes on the cover of a recent coffee-table empowerment manifesto. We have no way of knowing if Boudicca was beautiful. We do know that she answered abuse and humiliation by burning London to the ground, which is a really extreme way of leaning in to your career.
We have inherited a decluttered version of women’s history, optimistic and neatly folded, discarding everything that does not serve the way we want to see ourselves in a society where strong men scream their way to power and strong women are supposed to pick up the pieces. If we’re going to spend a mere four weeks out of 52 on that history as we do each March when Women’s History Month arrives, we ought to make it count, even if that means embracing a messier and more discomfiting version of the past.
Celebrating women as “strong, resilient leaders ” — as first lady Melania Trump, herself no stranger to the power of a steely exterior, did in a recent tweet — obscures as much as it reveals about the real conditions women have faced throughout the centuries. “Empowerment” has always been more palatable and easier to sell than the idea of women simply taking power, and it’s more cheerful than the reality that plenty of women’s history has been defined as much by frustration and pain as by perky self-actualization.
All history, especially the sort of history that gets trotted out during these designated months, is an artifact of curation, polished and mounted on the mood board of the age. But the truth is that women’s history includes long, bloody centuries in which our bodies were the property of our fathers and husbands, when we routinely died in childbirth, when we could be raped and beaten with impunity, when we were denied education and political suffrage. The women who worked to change those conditions weren’t just “strong.” They were angry. They were afraid. They were lonely and despised and exhausted, like every woman who steps outside the story men have written for her and tries to tell her own.
The true condition of women’s history isn’t the only thing we would have to acknowledge if we took women’s history seriously. We would also have to look hard at the men who created those conditions. I grew up on good whole-grain female empowerment stories, but it took me a long time — and a lot of personal pain — to understand that behind every one of the brave and brilliant women I sketched in my schoolbooks were a great many men who tried to destroy her. We do every one of them a disservice when we dissolve that real struggle in a saccharine soup of empowerment rhetoric.
That’s uncomfortable to acknowledge, and “strong, resilient” women aren’t supposed to make other people feel uncomfortable. The backlash to the #MeToo movement demonstrates the fact that when women speak honestly about what has happened to us, and about what has been done to women and girls over guilty centuries of violence, men often react as if we have burned their cities to the ground. But without this double reckoning, we make it seem — as it seemed to me as a child — that the only reason more women weren’t written into history is because they weren’t strong enough, and not because they were shoved to the margins of the story men were writing about themselves.
There’s nothing wrong with reminding little girls and little boys that women are allowed to be astronauts, athletes and politicians — so long as they also know that they are allowed to be people. And people have flaws and fears and wants and needs. When we speak about historical suffering, it is often read as weakness. In fact, the courage to examine the full sweep of women’s history, even when that history is fraught with messiness, fear and compromise, or even complicity — and the courage to stay in the room and listen — is the sort of strength that truly changes the world.
None of that is acknowledged in the jolly news releases packing my inbox this month, offering me interviews with entrepreneurs and gutsy you-go-girl slogans on T-shirts and tableware. I’m not complaining about the merchandise. I will inevitably purchase the Rosa Luxemburg tote bag that Facebook keeps trying to foist on me. But when I scroll down, I see my friends posting about their experiences of sexual violence, of domestic abuse, of workplace harassment. True stories about women’s history don’t fit nearly so neatly — and don’t look nearly so pretty — on a tote bag.