The influenza pandemic of 1918 struck the United States suddenly and ruthlessly. It spread with an efficiency that brought entire cities to their knees, claiming not just the very young and very old, but also otherwise healthy people in the middle of their lives ― the kind of people flu season usually spared. In Philadelphia alone, 12,000 people died in less than five weeks. In New York City, it was 30,000 people in less than 18 months.
One of those 30,000 was the youngest child of the Wisner family of Brooklyn. She was three years old. Her three older siblings survived the pandemic; her only sister, Belle, is now 103, and she is my grandmother.
A few years ago, though we’re not quite sure just when it happened, Grandma Belle reached the age where people congratulate her on being alive. She doesn’t look nearly as old as she is, and one of her favorite games is to have a stranger guess how old she is and revel in the look of disbelief or admiration on their face when she reveals the truth: that she’s older than World War I.
Those strangers are right to congratulate her. Living past 100 is no mean feat, even in an age of antibiotics, blood pressure medication and hip replacements. It is easier if you are white, which makes you more likely to have access to those life-improving and life-extending aids. The 2010 census counted about 53,000 centenarians, of whom 82 percent were white. You are also more likely to live that long if you are a woman: Only 20 percent of Americans who make it to 100 are men.
It’s mind-boggling to consider the sheer volume of history that has unfolded in my grandmother’s lifetime. The world into which she was born, where only the wealthiest homes had telephones installed, is in many ways unrecognizable from the one she lives in now, where I call her every evening on her cell phone, often interrupting her game of online Scrabble.
In many ways, though, the landscape has changed far less than one might hope.
History, as we know it, is still a story that’s largely told by men. An analysis of America’s most popular recent history books found that the vast majority ― 75.8 percent ― were written by men. And most of those men wrote about other men: 71.7 percent of biographies were about male subjects. Many women who wrote biographies ― 31 percent ― wrote about men, too, while only 6 percent of male biographers chose to document a woman’s life.
It’s mostly men who write history, and mostly men who, according to those history books, make history. But it’s women who live through the most of it. And in daily life, it’s women who do the work of remembering important names and dates and events. It’s women who write the shopping lists and birthday cards and absence notes, documents that rarely make it into our history books, while men are busy writing magazine articles and legislation ― and the history books themselves.
Of course, we can’t all be historians, and we can’t all have our lives detailed and documented in Caro-esque tomes. All writing, all storytelling, is editing: Some events don’t fit in the book and some people don’t make it out of the first draft (or into it in the first place). But the reason oral histories and people’s histories exist, and matter, is because most of us understand that history is, above all, lived.
“The names and dates are the easy stuff; it’s the intimate, unwritten histories ― women’s histories ― that die when we do.”
A woman born in May 1914 has lived through a litany of historical milestones and pivotal moments. My grandmother married late, because few could afford to set up a home during the Great Depression. Though she lived in New York for most of her life, she spent much of the 1940s on an Army base in Mississippi. She was widowed young, because 1956 medical science couldn’t save her first husband. She raised daughters during the 1960s, and she watched them walk through newly opened doors ― to universities, to workplaces, to lives spent writing the kinds of documents that make it into history books ― that had been closed to their mother, and to all the women who came before them. She’s voted in every election since 1936. (The vote she cast that year, for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was her favorite of them all: “You never forget your first time.”) In our most recent election, she voted for a woman.
Men wrote this history, but my grandmother observed it, endured it, acted in it and had her life shaped by it in ways she and I can understand ― and in ways we cannot. This is not to say that women do not “make history” in the ways our culture understands it: Women have always been writers, innovators and leaders, even if their lives and their contributions have often been buried. And even if the excavation of those stories has largely been left to amateurs and activists: When artist Judy Chicago set about assembling the list of 999 women to honor in her seminal 1970s installation The Dinner Party, she struggled to find professional historians who would help her.
As the last remaining family member of her generation, for almost two decades my grandmother has been the keeper of family lore and memories. Of our history. Her memory is still good ― a small miracle, given her age ― and a few years ago, she started writing down the stories she wants the rest of us to remember. It’s yet another editing process that will, inevitably, leave information and individuals out of history.
Every two weeks I visit her; we play Scrabble, I cook her dinner, I do her nails. I try to gather scraps of history when we’re sitting across from each other, huddled close while I hold her hand and paint on her top coat. It never feels like enough. There are things she remembers, things she knows, that I will never learn. Some things she’ll never be willing to tell me, and some things I wouldn’t even think to ask. When I marvel at the vastness of world history she’s lived through, I worry about the archive of family history that will disappear when she does. The names and dates are the easy stuff; it’s the intimate, unwritten histories ― women’s histories ― that die when we do.
Every September, like clockwork, Grandma Belle reminds me to get my flu shot. About a month later, my mother ― her daughter ― reminds me, too. About a month after that, I actually do it. This is women’s history in action; it’s sometimes written down, but more often, it is lived in our homes and in our bodies. This is the way we pass down love, and loss, and the memories of girls and women who didn’t live long enough to see history unfold or make their marks upon it.
Chloe Angyal is deputy editor of HuffPost Opinion.