As I have written before, storytelling is a powerful tool. We tell our children stories like the boy who cried wolf to teach important lessons. We tell them how George Washington could not tell a lie, so they will learn about character. We tell our children stories about our families so they will have a sense of their own history. One of the earliest stories I remember being told was how my grandfather pitched a no-hitter representing Cuba against Team America in the pan-American games.
The stories we tell change as children grow older. They become less fantastical and more based in fact. As we grow older, we learn Teddy Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine: “speak softly and carry a big stick.” We are told of Teddy’s distant cousin Franklin and how in 1933 he calmed a nation in crisis with the declaration, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We feel a sense of pride when we hear Neil Armstrong say, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
We are told such vivid stories, stories that have such color that we feel as though we know these men. If I close my eyes I can imagine Teddy Roosevelt leading the Rough Riders into battle. I can envision Franklin Roosevelt, in my mind’s eye, propping himself, and all of America, up on the metal braces he used to give the impression of standing while giving a thundering speech. I can even picture Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in a room while Ben Franklin wonders aloud whether the half sun on the back of Washington’s chair is setting on a soon to be crushed revolution or rising on a new day of freedom and democracy. The stories I have in my head are so vivid it feels as though I have access to these great men, not only as historical figures, but seemingly as members of my extended family. They are as real to me as my grandfather, who died when I was a baby, and his no-hitter. When cataloging these men who live in my head, who accompany my thoughts, who taught me lessons as a child and guide my actions today, I realize there is something missing.
I can share an anecdote or quote from or about any number of men from history. Most of these relay some sense of who that person was. I can’t do the same for women. I was never taught anything about Rosa Parks other than she refused to sit in the back of the bus. And even then it was taught to me as if she had a long day and decided there on the spot enough was enough. I never learned until I was old enough to do the research myself that she was an activist and this act of defiance was planned.
The stories about women leaders that have been placed in my head are one dimensional, and often scandalous. There is no mention of where these women came from, what they stood for, or what happened to them after they left the lens of history for the brief moment they had our attention. Betsy Ross sewed a flag. Eleanor Roosevelt had an affair with a woman. Our stories of women leaders are so lacking in depth even Ruth Bader Ginsburg recalls times when lawyers would argue before the Supreme Court and mistake her, a liberal native New Yorker, for Sandra Day O’Connor, a conservative from Arizona. Lawyers established enough to argue before the Supreme Court confused one justice for another. The stories we have about women are so lacking, it’s just that easy to substitute one woman for another.
I have recently had the pleasure of getting to know Charlotte Waisman, co-author of Her Story. This beautiful book features a timeline of hundreds of important women from American history. While their complete stories are too varied and rich to be presented together in one volume, this book is a fantastic starting place to discover important women leaders. As I leafed through the book for the first time I found myself going directly to one of the leaders who has inspired me most:
1843: Isabella Baumfree, who gains her freedom in 1827, changes her name to Sojourner Truth. She becomes a powerful antislavery speaker best remembered for her 1851 “Ain’t I a woman” speech in which she said: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?”
It is important that we learn and share vivid stories about women. Sojourner Truth’s story becomes multidimensional for me when I hear her words. Which women in history are important to you?