Do Old Ladies Make World History?: Student Perceptions of Elder Female Agency

In this article, the author shares the views of his undergraduate students regarding elder female agency and their answers to the question: "Do old ladies make world history?" Because his undergraduate students mostly view the past in terms of the Great Man theory of history, which holds that those who make history are necessarily great, and usually men, their answers to the question, predictably, vary from an unconditional, "No," to a noncommittal, "In the background, somewhere, maybe." Some can muster a few high-profile examples of older women on the world stage, like Mother Theresa, Queen Victoria, Clara Barton, or Sojoumer Truth. They are just as likely, by the way, to confuse "old" with "having lived long ago," which leads them to include Harriet Tubman or Florence Nightingale. In point of fact, both did live to a ripe old age, but people know them for things they accomplished during their 20s and 30s. To make his point, the author gave his students a series of articles from the "Washington Post" recounting events during the attempted coup by Soviet hardliners in August 1991, and another set of articles from the "Moscow Times" in 2001, reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the events. His students had read the sources, but they had not noticed, let alone been surprised, by the evidence that older women undoubtedly took part in these collective acts of resistance, even performing heroically on occasion. He concludes that people underestimate the historical agency of older women, not because the evidence is lacking, but because they are not prepared to note what is there. This is probably less a function of historiography, or how history is "told," than a function of what might be called the "sociology of history," meaning how history is "absorbed," or set against prior assumptions. (Contains 11 notes.)