Monday, March 08, 2010

Women In History—Included and Fully Recognized

In reading about women in history, I ran across a story of one tough broad, Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Since I didn't include her in today's opinion piece for Small Town Newspaper, I'll tell her story here:

Sarah was the oldest of nine children in a poor family in New York in the 1800s. To help support the family, she became a domestic servant, which was about the only job available to women at the time outside of prostitution. The pay was dismal, and when Sarah learned she could earn more as a man, she disguised herself and worked on a canal boat as a coal handler. Then she learned she could earn even more as a soldier for the Union Army.

She joined the 153rd New York State Volunteers as Private Lyons Wakeman and fought as a Civil War soldier for two years, completely disguised and sending most of her earnings back to her family. She died in an army hospital of dysentery, and even then wasn't detected as a woman. Her family saved all of her letters which are now published in the book, An Uncommon Soldier.

Women in History (today's opinion piece)

February was Black History Month, although I hardly heard a word on the subject these past few weeks. March, on the other hand, is officially Women’s History Month, and I wonder how much attention this topic will receive.

Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if we were able to do away with this designated month all together. I believe the contributions women, and African Americans, have made to society are part of our unified history and should not be separated from the larger topic. Giving women their own category suggests there is a main category of history, and then there are the ladies; and it feels patronizing, a little like a footnote or a pat on the head.

The National Women’s History Project was the group that first lobbied Congress for a designated month to develop awareness of women in history. In promoting this special month, the organization states, “It often seems that the history of women is written in invisible ink. Even when recognized in their own times, women are frequently left out of the history books.”

While the inclusion of women and minorities in history books is improving, schoolteachers report women are not yet granted equal attention. It seems if we were to address this issue properly, to tell the whole story in our schoolbooks, then we wouldn’t need designated months to fill in the gaps.

When I was a schoolgirl years ago, my history textbook was filled with the biographies of famous men with credit given to only a handful of women for their achievements. Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, Amelia Earhart and Marie Curie are the names that come to mind of women who were mentioned, but beyond them, I was given very few role models to follow. It wasn’t until my adult years that I began reading about prominent women in history whose stories had previously been written only in “invisible ink.”

Early on, I learned about famous figures in the American Revolution like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere. But I was never taught about what Mercy Otis Warren did to spur colonial independence. One of 13 children, Warren was tutored along with her brothers in an age when women were not provided a formal education. She went on to become a poet and playwright, successfully encouraging colonists to join the patriot cause; and she wrote a three-volume history of the Revolution. Thomas Jefferson, as president, took the books seriously and ordered the volumes for himself and for his cabinet.

The films of Orson Welles, D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille were discussed in my middle school social studies classes, but not once was the name Alice Guy-Blaché mentioned. The woman was a pioneer filmmaker beginning in the late 1800s who wrote and produced more than 300 movies. Guy-Blaché was one of the first directors to create fiction films, and she was innovative in incorporating special effects and in synchronizing music to her films.

As a child, I was terrible at math and still have an aversion to numbers, but I do recall learning about Pythagoras, Albert Einstein and Charles Babbage. What I don’t recall is hearing the story of Ada Lovelace, a young woman in the mid-1800s who was privately tutored in mathematics and science at her mother’s insistence. As a prominent mathematician, she made extensive notes on Babbage’s proposed analytical engine, and her notations are considered the first computer program.

I learned about these overlooked women and their achievements apart from my formal education, just as I learned about the many others whose stories were invisible in my textbooks—the artists, composers, financial titans, business owners, soldiers, explorers, inventors, educators and social activists who all made noteworthy contributions to society.

The theme for this special month is “Writing Women Back Into History.” I’m hoping that once our history books are written to more justly address the contributions made by women, we will no longer need a designated month to give them their due. Then, our sons will respect the fundamental role women have played in history, and our daughters will understand their rightful place in society—right there in the mix with everyone else, included and fully recognized.

1 comment:

dive said...

What a gloriously inspiring piece, Robyn.
I do hope the women of Small Town get to read that and take it to heart (and the men, too)!