The “confidence gap,” the one women are supposed to learn to close, often by emulating men, will never close until children learn who these people, and others like them, were and what they did. This is just the short, obvious list.
From top to bottom: Sarah Winnemucca, Mary Wollstencraft, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, The Grimke Sisters
I speak regularly on the topic of the role of gender in culture, women’s rights and free speech. During the past few months, every time I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve conducted a survey. I’ve asked large groups of people, including grad school, college and high school students currently enrolled, one or more of the following fairly basic questions: Do you know what A Vindication of the Rights of Women is? Do you know who the Grimke Sisters were? Were you taught the Declaration of Sentiments in school? Have you ever read Frederick Douglass on women’s subjugation? Do you know who Sojourner Truth was? And, did you know that women went on hunger strikes, where imprisoned and force-fed fighting to get the vote in the United States less than 100 years ago? Can you name any other Native American women, especially leaders, besides, maybe Sacagawea and Pocahontas, from American history?
I chose these questions and people because they participated in or were major, public historical events that captured widespread, popular imagination. Events that were prominently featured in the news of the day and often highly controversial. In every instance, often in elite institutions, no more than 10% of the room, usually far less, answered “yes” to one or more of these questions. In one instance, in a room of more than 100 high school students, I asked how many had learned about the Civil Rights movement. 100%. I asked how many had heard and laughed at rape jokes. 100%. I asked how many had learned about fights for women’s liberation in the United States. Maybe six hands went up, and two were teachers’.
Mary Wollstonecraft, an eighteenth-century English writer, philosopher, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 to refute the idea that women were naturally inferior and argue for educating girls as moral agents. It was a broad renunciation of sex-based double standards and was a critical part of the British Revolution Controversy, a series of influential debates about the French Revolution. The Declaration of Sentiments was a point-by-point rewriting of the Declaration of Independence. Who takes a complete rewriting of a foundational text to include the rights of half of the population of the country out of history lessons? It written primarily by feminist Elizabeth Stanton Cady for the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848, the first mass meeting of its kind in the United States. When President Obama mentioned it during his second inaugural speech there was a whole lot of head scratching. The Conference was attended by Frederick Douglass, who, despite a later break with Cady and other women’s rights activists, spoke passionately in defense of women’s suffrage and equality. The Declaration caused a major controversy and was called by one paper, “"the most shocking and unnatural event ever recorded in the history of womanity." Nineteen forty-eight was, by the way, 40 years after women of property in New Jersey lost the right to vote, a disenfranchisement that few people are aware of. The Grimke Sisters, Sarah and Angelina, were prominent abolitionists and feminists who publicly abjured their Southern slaveholding heritage. Their outspokenness scandalized the nation and challenged prohibitions on women speaking with authority. They were renounced by their adopted Quaker community for speaking about abolition and simultaneously harangued by abolitionists for fighting for women’s rights. Sojourner Truth was a powerful historic figure in America, a former slave and peripatetic, compelling advocate for racial and gender equality. Sojourner Truth is, I was compelled to point out in one place, not the name of an indie band. As to the vote, “we” did not “give” it to anyone, contrary to mainstream historical narratives about suffrage. Women of all hues faced social disgrace, imprisonment, force-feeding and death to secure it and the passage of the 19thamendment dramatically hinged on the efforts of one powerful mother to sway her son’s vote. While the questions I ask seem to center the fight for women’s rights on a black/white narrative there is no earlier fight for women’s right in the United States that that fought by Native American women against colonialism, the effects of which you can find every day in today’s newspapers. I know, however, that the reality of our education system would result in a 100% negative response to the question, “Did you learn about the English colonists from the perspective of the colonized?” Adding women’s concerns to that query is simply asking too much. The sexism and bias that women faced to overcome legal and social prohibitions were evident throughout the 20th century, for example in the civil rights movement, and continue today as a result of our systematically failing to educate generation after generation about women’s fights for equality. Without historical context, it is impossible to understand women’s contemporary struggles, especially those of women of color still living in gross disproportion with the legacy of colonialism, racism and patriarchy every day.