March is Women’s History month, a celebration of women’s’ achievements created by Congress in nineteen eighty seven. The purpose of creating a special month was to highlight the contributions of women that had all too often been overlooked throughout most of history. As a female I know this to be mostly true. While I learned much about the men who influenced civilization, nods to women seemed to be few and far between. No doubt much of the neglect came from the fact that women have not always been given equal footing with men in the world of work, invention and ideas. Nonetheless, it seems that they have indeed left a mark on society that has not always been as duly celebrated as it should be.
I cut my teeth reading about the lives of the saints, which included a number of women. I enjoyed those stories but rarely identified with the women in that august group. Most of them were martyrs or religious leaders rather than ordinary souls like me. I needed to learn about someone like Mother Teresa whose compassion and devotion to ministering to the sick and forgotten inspired me. I enjoyed reading about her courage in overcoming the kind of barriers that women face. I identified with her moments of anger over the fate of so many suffering people in the world. She felt very human to me and so I appreciated the incredible work that she did.
I enjoy learning about women of the past who bucked the systems and traditions to get things done. Abigail Adams is one of my favorites. If ever there was a woman who should have been a member of the Continental Congress it is she. She was an educated and well read woman who understood the flaws in the plans of the Founding Fathers. She advocated for women through her husband, even though much of what she sought to accomplish never happened. I believe she would have fought to give the vote to women from the beginning, but there was still too much feeling that women did not have the good sense to make such important decisions back then.
I absolutely adore Eleanor Roosevelt. She overcame almost paralyzing shyness to speak for underserved people around the world. She insisted on inviting Black Americans to the White House even as her husband, the President, sometimes balked at how it would look to do so. She was a progressive who was a warrior for equality and justice. She had the intellect and the strength to run the country in her own right if she had not been a woman.
I’ve had to find the stories of incredible women mostly on my own. They rarely showed up in the history of my student days. The were single sentences in chapters filled with tales of men and their feats. I barely knew about individuals who had pushed down barriers to contribute to engineering and science. The silent female trailblazers were rarely spoken of as anything but appendages to famous men. I often think of how difficult it must of been to be a brilliant woman in an earlier time.
A friend of mine from high school became well versed the in the historical accomplishments of women. She wrote articles about their achievements and even produced a movie that chronicled the incredible work of nuns in the development of the United States. I became particularly impressed by Frances Cabrini who was charged with the duty of traveling to America from Italy to work with the children and orphans of immigrants in Chicago and New York City. This woman who had never left Italy boarded a ship and travelled to a world unlike anything she had ever experienced. With an iron determination she built schools, orphanages and hospitals. Her impact on generations of poor immigrants to America is almost immeasurable. She overcame her own shyness and worries to create a legacy that few men would have been capable of achieving. According to my friend, Frances Cabrini’s story is only one of a long line of industrious, creative and determined women who overcame roadblocks and prejudices to do amazing work.
I remember how difficult it still was for women to enter male dominated fields of endeavor when I was a college student. Friends attempting to earn degrees in engineering or architecture were often ridiculed by their professors and harassed by their male counterparts. There were formerly all male universities where trailblazing women who were the first to enroll were threatened with vile insults. It has not been that long ago when women with ambition were derided and denied entry into certain workplaces. We have a long way to go to learn the stories of those who persisted even in the face of violence.
I have not heard much about Women’s History month. Most of what I have seen has been quite superficial. We need to hear more about Margaret Mead and Rosa Parks. Where is the twenty dollar bill that was supposed to bear the face of Harriet Tubman? Why is the redesign taking so long? What can we learn about the incredible women who have not always made it to the forefront of history? I think we need to hear about the unsung women who broke the mold in spite of efforts to hold them back. It’s long past time to make their unsung histories a part of curriculum for everyone.