5 Women Who Did More Than You Learned About In School

The more I learn about history, the more I learn how much I thought I knew was wrong. I’m lucky in that I’ve had a number of history teachers throughout my education who taught us about more than the America-rah-rah, white-upper-class-Christian-European-male-centric stories, but even so I’ve come to learn that there are so many stories I was never told, and so many stories that were so much more interesting and in-depth than I ever knew. So many of these stories are about women, either women whose accomplishments have been undeservedly forgotten in history, or women who are remembered in a too-superficial way, not celebrating the complexity of their lives and achievements. Here, for International Women’s Day, are five women you probably learned about in history class, but not the way you should have.

Helen Keller

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I remember reading The Miracle Worker in middle school. The story of how Anne Sullivan helped Helen Keller learn to communicate is one of the most inspiring tales of perseverance and triumph I can think of. But that’s pretty much where things ended; we got a brief summary of Keller’s work as an adult, but as far as our education was concerned, she was forever a little girl learning to spell out words on her teacher’s palm .

But if Helen Keller’s childhood is an incredible story of determination, her adulthood is even moreso. Of course, she was a staunch advocate for people with disabilities (a cause that still often goes unrecognized in feminism today), but she was also a feminist, a pacifist, an anti-racist activist, and a socialist. Her writings on workers’ rights and equality are as powerful as her ability to overcome her physical obstacles, and tend to be overlooked in favour of telling her “miracle” story.

Rosa Parks

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When I was a child, I learned that Rosa Parks got on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, after a long day of work. She was very tired, and sat down at the front, in the Whites Only section. She was asked to move but, being tired, refused, and was arrested, becoming a symbol of the inequity of segregation. This is an incomplete and borderline-racist version of the tale, quite literally whitewashing Parks’ role in the Civil Rights Movement.

This version of the story pretends that she didn’t know what she was doing, that she only became a figure of the movement by happenstance. But that’s not true at all. “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in,” she said.  Her act of civil disobedience was deliberate and courageous.

 

Sacagawea

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Not much is known about the Shoshone woman who was a translator and guide for Lewis and Clark on their journey to navigate the Louisiana Purchase, and therefore in some ways we can’t be faulted for our superficial knowledge of her life. However, it seems to me that she tends to be included as an afterthought, Lewis & Clark (and the rest of the expedition group and Sacagawea).

Although she was not a leader of the group, her knowledge of the nature and terrain were invaluable. She also assisted in relations with other Native Americans, as she was bilingual and could interpret both with the Shoshones, her own group, and the Hidatsa people. Moreover, she took her newborn son on the journey, something the men certainly didn’t have to deal with.

 

Frida Kahlo

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Frida Kahlo’s image is iconic. In her self-portraits, she meets the viewer’s gaze, eyes confident below her unibrow. Her art is unflinching and powerful, but the meaning behind it doesn’t get the attention it should from people who just think the monkeys and flowers in her paintings look cool. Kahlo’s themes of inequality, culture, sexuality, gender expression (she would darken her famed unibrow with pencil and it was always prominent in her self-portraits), and she explored her own self-expression and the overall concept of womanhood in her works.

Kahlo was constantly critical of society, politically radical, and often the influence this had on her art is minimized. Her images of Mexico reflecting indigenous culture and as influenced by imperialism are not just aesthetic. Kahlo was also disabled, a socialist, and an activist; so many aspects of her life are frequently forgotten despite the recognition of her powerful paintings.

 

Mary Shelley

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Although Frankenstein is required reading on countless school literature lists, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is known by many more as the wife of Percy Blysse Shelley than as a groundbreaking author and editor, and creator of one of the first modern science-fiction novels. There are even those who claim that she did not really author Frankenstein, that surely it must have been her husband, denying her credit entirely.

However, Shelley was an accomplished writer and editor, creating works ranging from historical to apocalyptic. She also used her works to criticize and question established political and social norms, including Romanticism and gender roles, which was long minimized, and she was a thoughtful and scholarly editor of works by her husband and many others.

 

Who are your favourite women that are more than history makes them out to be? Tell me about them! I’m also looking for recommendations of biographies and especially autobiographies with female subjects. I’ll share some of my favourites soon. 

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