Georgette Sand: When history makes women invisible

Article published on Nov. 23, 2017
Article published on Nov. 23, 2017

Did you know that the oldest university in the world was founded by a woman? Or that the father of rock'n'roll was not a father at all, but a mother? Probably not. History rarely keeps track of important women; in fact, it often renders them invisible. In response to the systematic erasure of women from history books, Georgette Sand, a French feminist collective, wrote Ni Vues Ni Connues.

Cafébabel: So, how was the project Ni Vues Ni Connues (meaning 'neither seen nor known' in French, ed.) born?

Marguerite Nebelsztein: The project was born in 2015 from our Tumblr page Invisible Women. At the time, we dreamt of making it into a book. The idea was shelved until last year, when we were directly contacted by a publishing house, Hugo & Cie, and it all started from there. 

Cafébabel: How did you choose the 'invisible women' you would go on to write about in the book?

Marguerie Nebelsztein: First, we drew our inspiration from our Tumblr page. The rest was the result of exchanges and new discoveries as we went along. Our editor encouraged us to ask ourselves: "If this woman had been a man, would she appear in history books?" That was the guiding principle of the project. After that, everyone contributed ideas according to their own affinities. For example, an author called Flora Pajon knew Delia Derbyshire (a pioneer of electronic music, ed.) very well so she suggested including her in the volume and wrote an entry for her. I studied history, so I felt comfortable writing about Brunhilda (a Frankish queen, ed.).

Cafébabel: What was the research process for your project like?

Marguerite Nebelsztein: Not by copying and pasting from Wikipedia pages (laughs)! Simply writing biographies for each of the women by themselves would not have been very interesting. Instead, we wanted to focus on the reasons why women have been made invisible.

Cafébabel: Can you describe the process of recovering these women from anonymity and discovering the truth behind widely accepted history? 

Marguerite Nebelsztein: We had to dig deep. In the case of Rosa Parks, for example, it all started from reading a short sentence in an article in Libération on a whim. When I delved deeper, I realised that her fight was nothing like the story we are told. Decrypting women's history is also a matter of questioning the sources. For example, the only extensive study on Brunhilda comes from a book written by Bruno Dumézil; he completely rewrote her story and put her in her place. She was a great queen. However, her story was reduced to a catfight with Fredegund (another Frankish queen, ed.). Do not assume sources tell the story as it is: you have to scratch beyond the surface to see what lies beneath.

Cafébabel: Could you explain to us what you mean by 'erasure'? How does it happen?

Marguerite Nebelsztein: Erasure refers to the process of making a woman disappear from history. There are multiple ways in which this can occur: by moving a woman to the background, by making her disappear completely from the narrative, by minimising her involvement, by fiddling with the story (like in the case of 'black legends'), by diminishing or stealing her work, by confining her to the role of 'wife of' or 'sister of', auto-erasure... For me, Ni Vues Ni Connues is a toolkit to guard against female erasure and it has allowed us to bring to light a sad reality: on every continent, during every era, the same problems occur. The story of Nanerl Mozart is illuminating. Her genius was entirely eclipsed by that of her brother. That, due to family and religious pressures (women did not play music and they did not practise medicine), it was necessary for women to dress as men or hide to avoid being accused of witchcraft. Another issue is plagiarism. Let's take the ludicrous examples of Rosalind Franklin, a scientist who has been forgotten despite having greatly contributed to the discovery of DNA, or Marthe Gautier, a researcher whose work on Down syndrome was stolen by Jérôme Lejeune. To a certain extent, Marie Curie is in a similar position: she was the one who discovered everything; her husband was nothing more than her assistant. However, he ended up getting recognition. Of course, she won two Nobel Prizes, but we had to wait until 2007 for her name to be added to the Pierre Curie metro station in Paris. That could seem incidental, but it's a concrete example of erasure. 

Cafébabel: Let's go back to the question of 'auto-erasure'. Is this a widespread phenomenon throughout history?

Marguerite Nebelsztein: Yes, and it's always necessary to fight against it. These women should serve as a lesson to young women today: be proud of your work and surround yourself with people who will support it. Take the example of the photographer Dora Maar, erased by Picasso: does this not also count as a case of auto-erasure, as she chose to give up what she preferred in order to dedicate herself to painting? Of course, it's not politically correct within feminism to confirm that auto-erasure exists, but we have to talk about it as a mechanism. It's for these reasons that at Georgette Sand, we organise workshops on 'speaking up' because as women, we are taught not to interrupt, to not speak too much in public, to not bother anyone, to not impose ourselves on anyone during meetings. This is auto-erasure. We take the opposite approach: we don't say "I'm rubbish", we learn to be proud of our work, we congratulate each other. There is a lot of mentoring within the group. 

Cafébabel: Does it work?

Marguerite Nebelsztein:  It works pretty well, yeah! I can think of an example of one of the Georgettes who was very shy, and who has just finished her own photo project. Maybe as a group we gave her that extra little push she needed. I myself have changed a lot in terms of how I work. I force myself to impose myself, to speak up, to bring up issues much more. For example, I was recently confronted with a case of male/female inequality: rather than keeping quiet and making myself invisible, I spoke up about it as I knew I had the Georgettes behind me and that my concerns were legitimate. 

Cafébabel: How can men get involved in stopping the erasure of women? If it's generally men who write history, is female erasure inevitable? 

Marguerite Nebelsztein: The first thing is to be aware of it. Even as women we can erase other women, while there are men who do pay attention to the problem. For both men and women, it's vital to be conscious of these social mechanisms, and to remain vigilant. At work, this could mean making sure not to cut female colleagues off during meetings, or to remember to bring their work to the forefront if it should be brought to people's attention. Of course, not all women need help and some do step over others. Some women have worked so hard to get to where they are, that they become misogynistic themselves towards female colleagues below them. That's another issue, but you always have to be aware of these problems and pay attention to your own behaviour. 

Cafébabel: So, do men have a role to play in this?

Marguerite Nebelsztein: Yes, absolutely. At Georgette Sand, we advocate true teamwork. There aren't that many men who work with us, but we are a mixed group. Personally, I start from the principle that if men don't give us any space on their turf, we can't reclaim our place in society. Fighting between ourselves serves no purpose. It's a question of re-education for everyone, both men and women.  

History is a bit like the Latin grammatical rule we are inculcated with at primary school; we are taught that the masculine always takes precedence over the feminine. These are the first bits of information we are taught, and that makes us who we are as citizens. If we grow up with a history in which women are absent, and we do not study the work of a single female author or a single female scientist during the Baccalaureate... It makes sense that we will end up thinking that there were not, are not and will not be anyone other than men in history. 

Cafébabel: What do you think about the question of 'representation' – the ways in which certain identities, such as gender, ethnicity, or even age, are represented in public space – an issue that is held dear to intersectional feminists in the U.S.A? 

Marguerite Nebelsztein: It's incredibly important. As Pénélope Bagieu wrote in our afterword: the day she discovered a female illustrator, she told herself that she could do it too. I flicked through a life sciences textbook for students in their final year at college, and in a book of 100 pages, there must have only been one or two women, while there were countless men. This absence of representation partly explains why girls, who are gifted at science in primary school, do not continue to study it later on. It's unconscious, of course, but it's there. This week, for example, there was a programme on France Inter about maths: there were five guests, all men. It's very frustrating.

Now, if you said that Ni Vues Ni Connues could be a schoolbook, I would totally agree. I would love for the book to be in every school library, so that from early on, boys and girls would realise that, yes, women are part of history. For example, last Friday, my younger brother told me that there have not been any great female authors. Quite simply, he has not been taught about them. 

Cafébabel: I've faced the same thing during a panel on diversity, which was not at all diverse, and I think the organisers did not even recognise that this was an issue.

Marguerite Nebelsztein: I completely agree. It's a bit like all the accounts of sexual harassment that have recently come to light; it's obviously great that we are talking about it, but it gives the impression that everyone is just discovering that it's an issue. You only have to talk to your female colleague, your female friend or your girlfriend to realise the scale of the problem. It's exactly the same thing with panels: you also have to take into account that the ease of finding experts is prioritised, and you often find that there is that one expert who always gets invited. No one makes the effort to find an unknown female expert and, due to erasure, female experts tend to be less visible than their male counterparts. The media plays an important role in upholding a lack of diversity: you only have to look at the statistics on guests invited to talk on morning TV and radio programmes. Even at the National Assembly, we love to talk about the fact that it's made up of 40% women, but they only occupy 4% of speaking time. Women do not head any groups or commissions. What's the point?

Cafébabel: There are still women who, even if they are powerful (such as politicians or actresses), remain quiet and choose to fade into the background. How can we solve this problem? 

Marguerite Nebelsztein: I think that social media is an incredible tool for finding and sharing information. At the National Assembly, sexist outbursts are quickly criticised. I think that we are making progress at an incredible pace, notably thanks to Twitter. The idea is to shame sexists. That may sound awful, but it's necessary to humiliate these men and their horrifically misogynistic remarks. We have to make their behaviour out-dated. It's sad that even the National Assembly is not able to provide a good example for us to follow. It really makes me laugh that we complain about neighbourhoods like La Chapelle (in the north of Paris, ed.) and we are told that we cannot go out alone. Personally, I would not want to be an assistant at the National Assembly. 

The 'solution' (or rather the tool) is to be aware of these mechanisms, to program ourselves to listen to women, to invite them on shows as experts, to use their work in exhibitions in museums, to study female authors during the Baccalaureate. The presence of women has to be normalised, and so does thinking about these issues. To change behaviours, we have to shame those who do not respect basic rules that should already be the norm.

Cafébabel: What's the role of public authorities in this? 

Marguerite Nebelsztein: Firstly, to re-examine the choice of history books. I dream of going to speak about Ni Vues Ni Connues to students. We already have established a link with a school in Oise, and the book is being sent to Brazil to be used in classrooms. I find it amazing to be able to go to schools to defend the book and talk about it with children.

Public authorities have a role in financing culture, and therefore they have a certain power in making women more visible in it. We have to use the principle of 'gender budgeting'. In short, cutting funds for a museum that shows exhibitions of male artists 99% of the time and only puts on an exhibition of a female artist's work every ten years. Because female artists exist, obviously. And they should not be unseen and unknown, but rather seen and known. 

Cafébabel: Has pop culture got a part to play in this?

Marguerite Nebelsztein: I am a big fan of Beyoncé (laughs). We can criticise her for her commercial feminism (it was the same thing with the proto-pop feminism of the Spice Girls), but she has brought feminism into pop culture and has made it accessible to all. Pop culture can be very important in making women visible: Hidden Figures is really a great example of this, much like Wonder Woman. Pop culture, when it doesn't dumb things down too much, has an important role to play. 

Cafébabel: We talk a lot about sorority, and women supporting each other, but it seems more obvious in the case of men. What do you think?

Marguerite Nebelztein: Fraternity is definitely more visible – it's France's motto – in contrast to sorority. Maybe it's something that we are missing and it should be re-inscribed in our DNA: we have to pull together as women, in our projects and in our lives. That idea has started to gain traction. Besides, going back to the importance of pop culture, I recently read an interview with Ibeyi where they hammered home the need to spread the word 'sorority'. Maybe guys are more used to talking about fraternity, and women not so much. Sorority exists, but I think it's more easily found by sharing problems, rather than promoting each other's work. Ni Vues Ni Connues is also an example of sorority: two amazing female project leaders who led 21 people... it was really a great team effort by a group of women.

Cafébabel: What would be the ideal scenario now for Ni Vues Ni Connues ?

Marguerite Nebelsztein: That the book ends up in every school and that it affects the choice of history books. The fact that Brunhilda is not taught at school drives me crazy: we never hear the end of Charlemagne, but she marked the West's passage from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. However, at no point during my history studies did I ever hear about her. I hope that Ni Vues Ni Connues is a landmark in making these women visible. And I hope that we are able to write a second volume after the success of the first (laughs)!

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Read: Ni Vues Ni Connues by Georgette Sand (Hugo & Cie 2017)

This article was written in partnership with Girlshood, a webzine for unconventional girls.