When i was a kid, if i had handed an alien my U.S. History book as an insight to our country, they would have thought nearly everyone of importance was a white male. From Columbus and his male crew meeting the (male) chief of the local tribe, to Captain John Smith, to President George Washington (And every president up til this decade)… 3/4 of the book was white men. Yes, we learned about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Eleanor Roosevelt. We learned about George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King Jr. We learned about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks. We learned about Pocahontas and Sacagawea. But that was about it. The only person i remember being called out as specifically Jewish was Einstein. And if there were people of any other ethnic persuasions, i don’t remember any time being spent on them. Sad, really.
Granted, some of it is due to the fact that, until fairly recently, generally speaking, white men held the seats of power. The status quo was a European Christian male as the leader of… well.. pretty much everything. But times, they are a’changing. Every day this country becomes more diverse. And as a result, more groups are getting a chance to partake in the type of history that gets documented in textbooks. I mean, we all have always been a part of history… Just not the part that gets into the popular public record. But even that is starting to come around.
I went to see Hidden Figures yesterday. To my surprise and delight, my son was eager to see it as well. If you somehow haven’t seen the trailers, it is the story of the “human computers”, specifically, a group of black women, who were responsible for the calculations used to get men into space. Now, i have made it a point to study women’s history for nearly 30 years, but i can honestly say that i didn’t know anything about these women until a few years back when my daughter and i had the pleasure of hearing Dr Mae Jemison speak, and she talked about some of the women who came before her at NASA. One of the things she said about those women, women like herself, has stuck with me – They were black, they were female, and they were “nerds”; so they had three strikes against them when it came to public impressions. Thankfully, Dr. Jemison’s parents never bought into that. They encouraged her, even knowing how difficult the path would be. Becoming an astonaut is hard for anyone. But at that time, for a black woman, even more so. She did it anyway. And now it is easily conceivable for a woman, of any ethnicity, to go to space.
We need to put women like these into the history books. Important, significant women of all types to help further the aspirations of our weedlings. Lets make it easier for them to spend less time reading about the Kardashians, and more time reading about Madame C.J. Walker, Wilma Mankiller, Maya Lin, the Notorious RBG (Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to those not in-the-know). And lesser known, but still historically significant women like Deborah Samson, Ann E. Dunwoody, Dr Helen Rodríguez Trías, and Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler. By including women like these, we show that it is possible for ALL girls, and by extension, ALL children, to grow to become people of historical significance.
Lets face it, folks, it wasn’t that long ago when independent women were burned at the stake as witches. When black women were thought to be little more than oxen. When intelligent women were thought to be anomalies. When conventionally unattractive women were considered to be hopeless. And on and on. And heaven help you if you had more than one of those strikes against you.
Yes, i am fully aware that i am soap-boxing. But this is important to me.
Also of note, we need to make sure that we don’t go overboard and infringe upon those who take paths society deems “backwards”. The woman who chooses to be a stay-at-home mom is important, not because of some misogynistic fluff, but because she CHOSE to be that in the face of small-minded feminists who don’t see the value in it. The woman who becomes a Catholic nun or Buddhist monk is important not because she is sheltered from the world, but because she CHOSE to dedicate her life to something she cared deeply about in spite of others finding it old-fashioned. The young woman who attends an all-girls’ school, or an all-black school, or any separatist institution is doing so BY HER OWN CHOICE, and that makes it significant. Even if it is something that others might feel is a step back. In this context, a free choice is a step forward, even if the result is not one that seems progressive to the masses.
My daughters have never felt fettered by notions of what women are “supposed to do”. At least i don’t think they have. I hope they haven’t. I’ve tried to instill in them the belief that society’s notions are not a code that needs to be followed. I try to be the same with my son, as he, too, will find gates and fences that will try to block his path along the way. Teaching our weedlings that there are endless possibilities in life is most important… And should be followed closely by the teaching that “endless” does not mean “easy”. The norms we frequently have to buck against require effort to overcome. Swimming against the tide, literally or figuratively, is much more labor intensive than going with the flow. It is not for everyone.
And that’s ok. We don’t all have to be trailblazers. It takes all kinds of women, of people, to make the world the wonder that it is. Being a “regular Joe” (Or Josephine) is nothing shameful. The important thing is not the life you choose, but that YOU choose it. Yourself. Freely. Knowing that any choice was allowable. President or Preacher. Entertainer or Inventor. Mayor or Mother. Any choice you make freely with the conviction of your own heart is a good choice. But the only way we know that is to read and learn about those who came before us. The choices they made, the goals they set, and what it took to realize them.
These women, they were remarkable.
And so are we.