Quick! Name the greatest person in human history!
If you’re like most people, you probably repeated the name of someone you’ve read about in a book or you’ve seen on t.v. Or you mentioned someone who reflects your family’s belief system: FDR, Tommy Douglas, Ronald Reagan, Jesus Christ, your great grandfather, etc. And, if you’re like most people, the person you probably chose was a man.
And, most likely, a white man.
(Some of you may have chosen a woman or even someone of a third gender, and/or someone who was not white. If so, your definition of “greatness” is probably more nuanced and sophisticated than it is for most of the rest of us here in North America.)
But most of us, when asked the question Who is the greatest person in human history? will likely just repeat what we’ve always been told makes for greatness: Alexander the Great. Christopher Columbus. Abraham Lincoln. Winston Churchill. John F. Kennedy.
(To believe that that there could ever even be just one “greatest person” in history, or even a handful of them, or even dozens of them, is to buy into the “great man” theory of history: the notion that what actually makes up “history” are the few discrete acts of “the great men.” That military conquest, industrial enterprise, and political success are indeed great things, and, furthermore, that they are among the very few acts that we can actually count as great.)
But what about having a baby – the awesome act of bringing another human life into this world? Well, most historians treat that as not even worth noting.
It is the ultimate patriarchal fantasy that any man who rises to greatness does so all on his own. That nothing – and no one – who came before him much matters. Especially not his mother. After all, what the hell did she contribute, really, to his success in life?
(Other than everything!)
My failed attempt to try to celebrate the historical mother of us all. A couple of years ago I was taking a course on how to teach history to high school students. The professor teaching the course asked us each to come up with (and then argue for) what we each thought was “the most important single event in world history.” At first I thought that the professor was joking. Certainly this person could not be actually suggesting that we teach history to young people as if it were just a series of disconnected, discrete, and yet somehow massively impactful events? As if history were “facts” that are somehow utterly disconnected from one another, removed from the currents and tides of human existence and natural processes? That history is merely the individual acts of individual people (the vast majority of whom are men)?
I soon realized that the professor was (unfortunately) not joking, so I set out to think about what single “event” in world history could be considered to be the most important ever. And I kept going back to “well, this certain event would not have happened without that event preceding it, which was in turn preceded by another event…” It goes on and on and on and on, ever backward in time, which to me points to the futility of the entire exercise. But for the assignment I did have to come up with something. And for me that would mean a discreet event that was difficult to go back further from.
In retrospect perhaps I should have chosen “God’s Creation of the Universe” (even though I don’t personally believe in that story). But choosing it makes about as much logical and scientific sense to me as choosing any other single “most important historical event” that has occurred since then!
But what I decided to argue for was “The Birth of Mitochondrial Eve.” According to genetic analysis, “Mitochondrial Eve” is the woman who is our most recent common matrilineal ancestor. A mother of us all. She would have lived approximately 200,000 years ago in East Africa. And although one can argue about the relative importance of this individual in the course human development, I chose her birth for two reasons:
First, we are nothing without our mother. Without her, we do not even exist. No matter what you have ever accomplished in your life, it simply would not have happened without your mother. Without your mother – regardless of whether she was the dearest mommy or “Mommy Dearest” – without her nothing happens for you. You do not live. Your father may have been involved in your life. Or he may have contributed nothing more than a sperm cell. But your mother shared her very body and blood with you. A deep and incredibly generous gift. And that was before she even gave birth to you – an action that throughout most of human history – and in much of the world to this day – presents incredible risk to women’s lives! Yet it remains an act at which most historians simply yawn.
Second, this Mitochondrial Eve from whom we are all descended was no doubt a black woman. This is a critically important issue because it shows that we are all part of the same human family, and that the scourge of racism is a totally artificial – and wrong – human construct.
I was once at an anti-racism training led by a black man who asked the crowd: “How many of you are of African descent? If you are of African descent, please raise your hand.” A few hands went up. At that point he said:
“Every hand in this room should be raised! We are all of African descent!”
People! We are all descended from black folks. I pray that someday we all come to understand that fact.
(For another example of how race and racism are totally artificial constructs, one need just look at the fact that, due to migration and the early branching of the human family tree, modern “black” Ethiopians are much closer genetically to “white” Europeans and to “white” North Americans than they are to “black” Nigerians – their fellow Africans on the other side of that large continent.)
Eve banished (yet again). Of course choosing Mitochondrial Eve was itself kind of a random act on my part, since she too had a mother of her own. But the professor was requiring that we choose a specific event. So as artificial as it was to draw this line, it was the one I chose: Eve’s birth. The birth of the woman from whom genetic evidence shows that we are all descended.
But the professor rejected my choice, and gave me a low grade. Why? Because the event itself – the birth of Mitochondrial Eve – could not be dated specifically enough. And hence it was not, the professor said, enough of “a historical event.” So even though we know that it happened, we don’t know exactly when. And that wasn’t good enough.
Score one more win for “history as patriarchy!” Or is it “patriarchy as history!”? Or are those two things still so intertwined that distinguishing between patriarchy and history remains yet impossible?
Women die giving life. In that class some of my classmates argued for other events. I think in the end the debate came down to whether the invention of a movable type printing press (by a European male) was more or less important than Martin Luther (another European male) nailing his Theses to the church door.
But you know what strikes me as I think back on that debate? Historians don’t really know when Johannes Gutenberg (the printing press guy) was born. Sometime around 1395, they think. But you can bet that his mother, Else Wyrich, knew! And without her sharing her very body with him for nine months, without her giving birth to him, without her raising him, there simply would have been no him. There probably would have been some sort of movable type printing press eventually. But it was Gutenberg who invented it. He gave it to the world. But it was Else Wyrich who gave him to the world. And as exciting as it must have been for him to invent that press, the most important day in his life was not the day he first put that machine together. It was the day that his mother brought him into the world.
Martin Luther’s mother, Magarethe Luther, like Else Wyrich, is largely invisible to history. (Luther’s critics later tried to tear him down by saying that Margarethe Luther had been a whore. Those (apparently untrue) allegations are pretty much all that what we know about her.
It was very brave for Luther to nail his Theses on the church door criticizing the Pope and essentially founding modern Protestantism. He risked ruin, and was ultimately excommunicated from the Catholic Church. But you know what else was brave? How about going ahead and giving birth to him like his mother did in 1483, at a time when the rate for maternal death in Europe was as high as 3% per birth, a risk that remained the same for each child delivered. The overall death rate for women who experienced five pregnancies (as Martin Luther’s mother did) was 10%! http://www.faqs.org/childhood/Me-Pa/Obstetrics-and-Midwifery.html
How many men ever do things that have a 10% risk of killing us?
The list of prominent women who have died throughout history during childbirth is startling. These women include Jayne Seymour (wife of Henry VIII), Catherine Parr (another wife of Henry VIII), Sarah Lincoln Grigsby (the sister of Abraham Lincoln), Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt (wife of Teddy Roosevelt), and the early feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who died right after giving birth to her daughter Mary, a daughter who would later become known as Mary Shelley, and who would write the classic novel Frankenstein.
You can find a list of these prominent women here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_famous_women_who_died_in_childbirth
But the vast majority of women who have died in childbirth were every-day people. They were nobody “special.” And until the 20th century, death as a result of giving birth was incredibly common worldwide. Take a walk through any old graveyard. Before long you will encounter headstone after headstone indicating where a mother and her baby are buried together. And while maternal death is now relatively rare in the industrialized world, it is still a common (and mostly preventable) tragedy in much of the developing world. Maternal death rates in some regions remain over 100x that for the rate in the United States -- which itself has a maternal mortality rate that is still five times higher than the world’s best countries!
Motherhood is not just about birth. And of course motherhood is not just about bringing children physically into the world. It is also about raising them – whether they are a woman’s own biological children or not. The raising of children is something that has historically fallen almost entirely to women. Because the men are off doing, you know, “more important things” – the things that get their names written into the history books! And, you know what? By and large we men still are out in the world, leaving the raising of our young to their mothers or to other women.
So not only are women bearing the children, they are tasked with raising them as well. In most cultures it is still the women who socialize, civilize, and humanize the kids. Without our mothers (or our mother figures) most of us would be nothing. But most historians still see this area of life – the family, the raising of children – as unworthy of note. It as if no one ever gave birth to or raised Alexander the Great. Or Christopher Columbus. Or Abraham Lincoln. Or Winston Churchill. Or John F. Kennedy. It is as if these men just suddenly materialized at about age 20. As if dropped on earth by aliens.
And the love and the labors of their mothers and mother figures is simply erased.
The care that women provide in our society is unparalleled in its generosity and yet shockingly dismissed as totally unimportant by most historians.
On this Mother’s Day, I would like to thank all of the mothers and mother figures out there. You, in your everyday acts of courageous love and domestic heroism, are making history!
And I would like to end with a passage written by a woman who does not have biological children of her own, but considers herself to be a mother even so. She writes:
This Mother’s Day I also want you to consider every Foster Mom, every social worker, every woman unable to conceive, every woman who has miscarried or lost a child, every Teacher, Nurse, Step Mom, Aunts who love their nieces and nephews like their own, owners of beloved pets, and every woman who embodies feminine, nurturing love. http://www.miramichionline.com/a-childless-mother/
Happy Mother’s Day to all!