By Angela Noel
March 23, 2017
Late one night, as I sat around a high-top table for a snack after a long flight, a co-worker told me about his relative, a history teacher in Russia. “He’s had to re-learn history a few times,” he said.
“Huh?” I replied. “What do you mean “re-learn history?”
“Well, each time some new guy comes to power, they change the history books.”
Don’t be naive, Angela, I hear you saying. This can’t possibly be all that surprising, can it?
On the one hand, it’s not.
When I was a kid, Pluto was a planet. Now? Not so much. But whole swaths of history revised? Good guys become bad guys and vice versa. History books, I’d always thought, were supposed to be agnostic of politics. Just the facts, right?
Just the Facts, Ma’am
But I know that’s not true. Even in the good old US of A history books don’t tell just the facts. We learn portions of history. And we learn those portions through the lens of the author’s own time. New discoveries impact how we understand the past. Gravity, for example was described by Newton and then again by Einstein. Both are correct, the difference is that Einstein’s theory lets the metric used to measure gravity’s effect “. . .”flap around” so to speak – to change from place to place and time to time in response to what matter is doing.”
History though, the events themselves, like the geological record, can’t change. They either did or did not occur. The Russians revising their history books to fit an idealogical paradigm popular at a moment in time bothers me. But what bothers me more is how similar this practice is to how we’ve treated the role of women as creators and makers in our histories. One book, Wonder Women by Sam Maggs, is trying to change that.
Maggs writes about twenty-five women whose contributions (often uncredited) changed history. In the introduction, she explains why a book like Wonder Women is long overdue.
“Lack of representation is why, when I ask you to think of a scientist, the first person who comes to mind is a white-jacketed, messy-haired man. It’s why women’s historical impact is traditionally explored in an optional course called Women’s Studies, whereas compulsory classes on the historical impact of men are simply called History.”
Each Woman’s Unique Contribution
My own grandmother busted open doors for women in flight as a WASP in World War II. But her adventures pale in comparison to the achievements of many of the women Maggs writes about. These women persisted in achieving their goals against all odds, including imprisonment or death. Each pursued her unique contribution to the world at a time when acclaim or even credit was unlikely. And yet, they persevered.
How many of our grandmothers or great grandmothers, or great great great aunts or cousins offered gifts to the world only to be ignored? The knowledge that what these women did enhanced the lives of human kind is some consolation, but no one is talking about Bessie Blount Griffin or Annie Smith Peck. We should be, though, and not because they’re women. We should be talking about them because they’re awesome, and their contributions matter.
Be a Fan
Wonder Women isn’t the only place where women’s achievements are finding purchase in the mental landscape of a broader, more inclusive history. The Henry Ford’s Museum, and the show it sponsors called The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation aimed at school-age children (but I LOVE it) airs on Saturday mornings on CBS. It highlights inventions and contributions of both men and women. One show, in season three, details the quilts sewn by Susana Allen Hunter.
Susana, born in 1912, married a tenant farmer and lived in a shack on the land they farmed. She made more than one hundred quilts to keep her family warm; sewing old jeans and flannel shirts, dishrags and cotton sacks into intricate modern patterns, all by hand. Her quilts are on display at the museum and part of traveling exhibits. All because her grandchildren contacted the museum to share her story and her art.
Her great granddaughter-in-law, who took care of Susana in her later years, described her as a “humble person–proud” who “loved her quilting.” The remarkable artistry of the quilts and the story they tell of African-American rural life in the American South are part of our history. But, without the actions of others we would never have known of Susana’s art. Being an ally for the contributions of others is just as critical a role as being a creator ourselves.
This theme emerged again and again from the stories in Wonder Women. None of the women Maggs wrote about, and Sophia Foster-Domino beautifully illustrated, created or achieved in a vacuum. Though all had detractors, most also had friends, champions, and fans.
Learning as We Go
Despots may always demand a re-write of history, but that’s not the only reason to review the official record. History, like Susana’s quilts, is built from the available materials to serve a purpose. It must continue to grow, and include more voices because we learn as we go.
Learning to be both history-maker and history-appreciator means we celebrate the good, understand the bad, and do the most we can with what we’ve got.
Your turn: Who among your female relatives has made history in one way or another?