I did a lot of brainstorming and soul searching trying to decide which woman from the past, who is often overlooked, I should devote my attention to. Because of the anniversary of women’s suffrage I thought of Lucy Burns, the suffragist who endured prison, forced feedings, and more in the fight for women’s right to vote. I thought of Lucretia Mott, a major driving force in both women’s rights activism and abolitionism. Of Iba B. Wells, a major figure in civil rights, co-founder of the NAACP, and women’s rights activist, often left out of the circles of white women’s rights activists. I thought of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the young black boy who was murdered for talking to a white woman. This grieving mother boldly and bravely insisted her son’s coffin be left open for the world to see what had been done to him and allowed media to use graphic images of her son’s beaten body in order to advance civil rights, using her grief and her son’s tragically short life to affect change for others.
I thought of these and many other women, but I couldn’t decide on one woman to highlight or profile. One “hidden heroine.” There are so many women whose stories aren’t well known. Or aren’t as well known as other women’s stories. But they are all worth telling.
I decided instead to write about why women’s stories are hidden, less well-known than their male counterparts, and why some women’s stories are less told than others.
Why Are Our Heroines Hidden?
Issue 1: Sexism – Women were (& are) not offered the same opportunities as men. Speaking of history generally, women had less access to formal education and therefore more difficulties in achieving goals in academic fields and research. Legal restrictions on women’s right to vote, to own property, etc. kept them from enacting change. Societal expectations have kept many women in the home as wives and mothers, relegating them to domestic work. The field of history has traditionally been dominated by male academics. Prior to the wave of social history that swept through the academy in the 1970s and 80s, many historians focused on major public figures (historically predominantly male due to the restrictions on women mentioned above), military and state history. Social history began looking at history “from below” and taking into account minority voices, ordinary people, and the lived experience of people from many walks of life. But for years and still today, textbooks largely stick to the national narrative which prioritizes state and military history–domains traditionally and at times legally reserved for men.
Issue 2: Racism – Women of color have been doubly restricted from aspects of public life, facing racism and sexism simultaneously. Their stories are even harder to find and have more often not been preserved.
Issue 3: Sources – Despite the above limitations women still led lives of importance, of interest, and of value. Of course some women made notable, public achievements in the face of discrimination, but even more women were hidden heroines, living in their own space, making an impact on the lives around them, much as many of us live today. Their stories are worth studying as it illuminates what daily life was like for the majority of people in any given historical era, not just those who held power or made public strides. It is the actions of the populace that move culture and society, not just those of great men or great women. These women’s lives are harder to uncover though since fewer written historical sources were made by women and even fewer have been saved. Women’s identities are sometimes obscured by the tradition of naming them only as Mrs. Husband’s Name in public sources. Women who lived in eras where they participated minimally in public life will have less written sources left behind than men in the same era and women of color are often even more difficult to find written sources for. While there may be less sources, they do exist.
Issue 4: Interpretation/Public History – Strides are being made in this regard all the time, but the study of women’s history needs to go beyond the academy. Historians are increasingly studying women’s and minorities’ lives, but these findings need to be disseminated to the public via history classes and museums. The public is interested in the past and wants to know how it relates to them. This has been shown in studies, in the popularity of popular historical dramas, and other media. Half the population are women and so half of what’s included in museums should be about women. More public interpretation of women’s history, both notable women and ordinary lives, can help bring these stories forward and integrate them better into our national narrative.
Why else do you think women’s stories remain hidden? Who is your favorite “Hidden Heroine?”
This post was originally written in response to the US National Archives’ #19forthe19th Instagram Challenge in 2019, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. On June 4, 1919, Congress voted to pass the amendment which would then go to the states for ratification before becoming law of the land in 1920. I participated in the #19forthe19th challenge. You can find all of my posts on my Instagram feed: @bethnevarezhistory.