Other than picking up a history/nonfiction book as often as I can, I don’t actively study American history (academically, as a career, etc.). As a self-proclaimed reformed patriot with a heavily invested political interest in this country, I feel pretty disappointed with myself about my lack of knowledge on the regular; I frequently do not innately have the appropriate historical context on many topics and have to seek it out. Sometimes I don’t even know that this context is lacking, so it takes an external source to prompt me into frantic Wikipedia combing. It is always a blessing. I am full of gratitude for the women who have helped me to educate myself.
Recently, a friend wrote a post mentioning the importance of Women’s History Month as evidenced by the fact that our only widely taught example of heroic participation of women in the Revolutionary War era is Betsy Ross—which is a story that may not even be true. She went on to point out that it is especially ridiculous when you consider Sybil Ludington. I, dear reader, did not know who Sybil Ludington was.
On the night of April 26, 1777, Sybil rode her horse, Star (which, upon reading, forever cemented us as kindred spirits), 40 miles (over twice the distance of Paul Revere) to warn the militiamen whom her father commanded of a British invasion. It also happened to be raining. Oh, and she stopped on her way to warn the people of Danbury, Carmel, Mahopac, Kent Cliffs, and Farmers Mills using a stick to prod her horse, pound on doors, and fight off highwaymen. No big deal. Even though the militiamen could not reach Danbury in time to save it, the burning of three town buildings and multiple homes did not result in many deaths due to Sybil’s warnings.
I have long since come to terms with the fact that my public education provided me with a whitewashed, patriarchal version of history that focuses on, to borrow from James W. Loewen, “heroification” at the expense of honest representation. This heroification has led to our current political environment in which we place our political leaders on pedestals so high that we rob them of their humanity. The ability to recognize our heroes as also being problematic—or hell, even just acknowledging that it is probable that they will make decisions that will come to be viewed as mistakes—allows for critical educational opportunities and growth. George Santayana wrote the oft-repeated adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”, and we have an education system in place that deprives us of that memory while presenting a homogeneous historical view that leaves us doomed—doomed to continue to perpetuate systemic racism and gender inequality among other things.
This is really why Women’s History Month is important. As important as it is to keep learning and keep fighting for civil liberties every day of every month, sometimes you just have to have a Netflix binge, or life gets real cray, or you get hypnotized by your cat’s crazy eyes and lulled into a sense that you are not a human but actually a cat and above these things—you know, STUFF comes up. We set up times to remember important things—meetings, anniversaries, celebrations, yoga practice—because we are yet distractible, imperfect humans. Women’s history month is a dedicated time where lots of people, including the government, media, and women’s organizations, are all focused on raising awareness and providing an opportunity to learn. Because I don’t know lots and lots of things! I didn’t even know about Sybil freaking Ludington (and STAR!), who by all accounts is way more my speed than Betsy Ross ever could be. And it is essential because if we do not know this story, a story of a white woman, then you can bet that there are many more BIPOC women whose histories have been erased from our collective memory.
So, search for a woman that you have never heard of before. Expand your viewpoint! Look up Septima Poinsette Clark, Suzan Shown Harjo, Beate Gordon, Queen Liliuokalani, Awashonks of the Wampanoag, Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, Sylvia Rivera, Grace Hopper, Dr. Mae C. Jemison (who might actually be Wonder Woman) Marsha Johnson, or Heady Lamar. Expand outside of the US and find women like Khutulun, Mai Bhago, Nana Asma’u, Alice Guy-Blaché, Policarpa Salavarrietta, Frida Kahlo, Ada Lovelace, Shirin Ebadi, or Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. We all have our own filters, our own experiences that change how we view the world around us. Here is a place to start to expand that filter.
I challenge you to think about your history as it relates to the world around you. What is disappointing to you as a woman? A white woman? A woman of color? What do you think our collective experience has brought to the world? Who are your heroes? Please share with me, I really look forward to seeing your answers.
For fun and hijinks, here is a link to some quizzes from the National Women’s History Project. Test your skills, and find a few new ladies to inspire you!