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We Didn’t Know Until Now

I often explain to my students that our current command of data showing the dimensions of gender inequality in every nation, as well as its negative effects on everything from productivity to conflict, is a recent phenomenon.  It has been only in the past 20 years that data on gender has been collected on a global scale and really only in the last five that we have been able to discern the patterns and infer the causalities.  It has been an illuminating step forward in the on-going effort to know what the past and present of women is, so that we can build a better future.

This wry cartoon was drawn by Isabel Ogilvie-Smith, who is currently an undergraduate at Oxford. It was passed along to me by her mother, my dear friend Elizabeth Paris, who was among the first class of women admitted to University College at Oxford in 1979.

A key project of the Second Wave was to push academic disciplines to include women in their research.  Archaeology had studied the millennia with virtually no consideration given to what half the species had been doing all that time.  Anthropologists went into the rainforests and deserts—and, once there, interviewed only the men.  Even medical research was done only with male subjects.

History was no exception to this patterned blindness.  Amazing as it is to consider now, it has been in my adult lifetime that women’s history has been written.  When I was young, the national narratives were peopled exclusively by Great Men (and, of course, their wars).  We had nothing to help us know who the women had been, what they thought or felt.

The thrilling change in the practice of historical research, which expanded during the late 20th century to include everyday life and ordinary people, recast forever our understanding of the past.  A core element was the careful reconstruction of the history of women, a task that continues to this day.

We are now blessed with a richness of information about women’s lives that has never before been possible.  Yet in many areas of inquiry–including economics and business–the dominant paradigm still asserts that the male bias in the construction of knowledge is “objective,” that their precepts are somehow gender neutral despite a dogged refusal to acknowledge, for instance, the causes of the care crisis, the continued grip of financial exclusion, the pervasiveness of unequal economic treatment.

The last generation of women scholars left us a gift of unparalleled importance by handing us our own history.  The current generation of women (and men) built the data that tell what we look like now, all around the world.  The next generation must focus on eliminating the gender bias in our economic concepts so that we can, at last, figure out where we want to go and how to get there.


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