One of the early conference presenters provided a quick overview of the relevant history of the period from the Authorised Version and Shakespeare to the Inklings. He focused on the religious and literary highlights in Europe and especially Britain, which was appropriate given the subject matter. I don't mind narrowing of focus and excluding many voices when the situation calls for it. So it's dead white Christians and that's fine. Yet his summary was entirely from the perspective of men, and the clerics of the higher classes, and dominated by the Anglican-Reformed-Lutheran perspective. The last being odd when Tolkien is prominent on the bill. It was a history such as I might have heard in 1975 and even then wondered whether it might be a touch shabby.
Conservatives complain about various perspectives being shoved in unnecessarily, like bystanders joining a parade and snatching away a drum or commandeering a float, but it is a measure of how much we did need to change our ways. History could get narrowed to reporting on kings and the focus on succession. That was the focus of the few most powerful people in those times - though even they had illnesses, and farms, and trade to worry about - but that doesn't mean it has to be our focus. Religion, technology, disease, marriage customs, food, immigration, arts, and trade are not merely ornaments on the kingly Christmas tree. If you poke around looking for summaries of regional or national histories you will always find that a few of these are missing from consideration, and sometimes nearly all of them. They are the real history, and which Edward, Louis, Charles, or Henry is on the throne for a season might be ultimately not very important. Peasants are important. You can learn a lot about what was happening in a place by looking at what happened to the peasants. Their lives don't change much from year to year, but it is precisely for this reason that examination is helpful. If you check back in fifty years and the lives of peasants have changed, it means big things have been happening. Weather, trade, migration...something. Similarly the lives of women were downstream of what the men were doing and they had to scramble for rights and influence. They were left unstudied because in the moment whatever was happening with the barons looked like where things were at. Yet again, if you check between countries and see some difference between the life of Anne and the life of Johanna, it means large things are afoot that bear noticing. For this reason I think the focus by women on powerful women and great accomplishments in history has much the same weakness. Focusing on a person is an easier narrative to relate to, and especially when writing for the young it does not pay to be too abstract. In that circumstance finding a female scientist, author, or queen to focus on is fine.
But it is only fine by default, by having little other choice if one wants an audience. Women's history, minority history, peasant history - these are not captured by focus on the exceptions. Their value is in the reminder that an enormous number of people, the bulk of the population, are left out under the old narrative. The aggregate is the story. We don't fix the limitations of Great Man history by slipping in a few women.
How we tell history has changed, even among those who say they favor the old way of doing history. And much of it is good.
Update: There will be a reference to the Hajnal Line, and marriage customs influencing genetics on a remarkably short time-scale coming up. Steve Hsu interviewed Greg Clark and I would like to revisit that just a bit.