By Caroline Cioffi, LiveGirl mentor (New Canaan HS junior)
For those of you who don’t know, March is Women’s History Month, a holiday that has been observed since its origin in 1987. You might be wondering, why Women’s History Month? Why should a whole month be dedicated to celebrating the history of women specifically?
The mainstream approach typically taken to teaching U.S. history, whether it be in schools, textbooks, or museums, tends to overlook many of the women who transformed the very history we read about. Only an estimated 6% of the leaders described in history textbooks are female. Furthermore, of the 5,193 publicly recognized statues depicting historical figures on the streets of U.S. cities, only 394 of the monuments focus on a historic woman (if you do the math, that is a mere 7.6%).
Thus, it becomes increasingly important that we take it upon ourselves to learn about these women who, whether they appear in a history book or not, undeniably transformed the world we live in. The fact of the matter is that, throughout history, women have made notable achievements in all aspects of our world, from science to government to sports and art. These women serve as role models for every young girl who strives to make history herself and, therefore, we must celebrate these women and make them known.
I have put together a collection of my favorite women in history and I encourage you to visit a website or museum dedicated to women’s history so that you can do the same.
For those of you who haven’t seen the movie Hidden Figures, it’s a must-see. The movie is centered around a group of female, African American employees at NASA. Though not widely known, these women played a crucial role in the space race during the 1940s. Katherine Johnson was one of three African American students chosen to attend West Virginia’s graduate school. Johnson excelled in math and science throughout her education and put these skills to the test when she applied and was chosen for a position at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Following the launch of the Soviet Sputnik, NASA prepared for its own orbital mission. Having gained fame through her impressive work at NACA, Johnson was called upon by NASA to work on the project. Leading up to the launch, NASA had used computer technology to calculate the trajectory of the mission. Before launching the spaceship, the astronauts requested that Johnson check the calculations. Only then would they be comfortable taking off. The mission was ultimately successful and played a transformative role in the space race thanks to Johnson’s mathematical prowess.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Like many of you, Elizabeth Cady Stanton began to speak out about her rights from very a young age. She was determined to excel in male-dominated spheres and was drawn to the women’s rights movement. In 1848, along with many of the other most influential women of the time period, Stanton led the Seneca Falls Convention. The convention drew up the “Declaration of Sentiments”, which demanded equal rights for women and, specifically, the right to vote. Stanton traveled around the country delivering lectures and speeches and chronicling the history of the women’s suffrage movement during her time. Because most of 19th century politics were male-dominated, many women were afraid to speak out on these politically-based issues. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had no such fear. While she did not live to see many of the changes she had long sought, Stanton established the National Women’s Suffrage Association. This forerunner organization made monumental change including securing the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
After battling Polio, Wilma Rudolph was told she would never walk again. Not only did she, in fact, walk again, but she went on to become known as “the fastest woman in the world” at the height of her career. Throughout high school, Rudolph ran track and field at the collegiate level; she was able to improve enough that she was asked to participate on the United States relay team at the 1956 Olympics. She won a bronze medal in the 4x100 relay and became determined to win gold in the next Olympics. At the 1960 Olympics, Rudolph exceeded her goal earning three gold medals and breaking three world records. She was given the nickname “the fastest woman in the world” and gained fame worldwide. Being an African American, Rudolph was determined to use her new platform to put an end to segregation. Upon returning from the Olympics, she refused to participate in the homecoming parade unless it was integrated. Even after her Olympic career ended, she continued to be actively involved in athletics and encouraged that all sports be integrated.
When asked about her childhood, Frida Kahlo described her early years as “very, very sad”. She suffered as a result of her parents’ struggling marriage and contracted Polio at the age of six, which set her apart from her peers. During this difficult time, Kahlo used art as an outlet through which she could express her emotions. As she got older, her artistic talents were noticed by others and her paintings gained popularity. She is most known for her brutal self portraits in which she defied the beauty standards set for females at the time. Her portraits were intentionally realistic, leaving her natural features untouched. She often wore her hair in braids and pulled back, which was considered unacceptable for women during the time period. Furthermore, she often dressed in men’s clothing in an effort to challenge the gender stereotypes that were firmly engrained in her society. Kahlo was also, throughout her career, open about being bisexual. Though people during her time were not as accepting, she took pride in her sexuality and refused to let society tell her otherwise.