When I taught U.S. history, early in the semester my students were required to read and discuss Abigail Adams' letter dated March 31, 1776 to her husband John. In it, Adams asks that her husband not forget about women's rights while fighting for America's independence from Great Britain. She wrote,
I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."
Each year I told my students that throughout the course, I would honor her request.
This particular plea from Abigail Adams has always resonated with me as a history educator. Indeed, my own teachers were not particularly "generous and favorable" in their inclusion of women in the curriculum. High school introduced me to a handful of female authors and poets in English class, but women were largely absent as historical actors. The women I did learn about were typically presented as passive agents, as if their noteworthy deeds had occurred by accident rather than out of calculated effort and conscious choice. It's more difficult to appreciate the heroic contributions of women when you are told that Sacagawea merely "guided" Lewis and Clark over familiar terrain and that Rosa Parks simply "sat" on a bus.
July 19th marks the anniversary of an important milestone in U.S. history, the first women's rights convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and held in Seneca Falls, NY. In 1848 it was billed as "a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women." While this important first step towards affording women greater equality in American society is an "easy" event to include when highlighting the contributions of women, I encourage you to consider the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and think of the remarkable women who may fit the bill. For example:
The best protection any woman can have is... courage" - Elizabeth Cady Stanton, from her 1898 autobiography Eighty Years and More
In tribute to Elizabeth Cady Stantion and the Seneca Falls convention, here are five "women of courage" to consider:
- Elizabeth Eckford, the brave young high school student who walked through the screaming mob outside of Little Rock High in 1957. It is evident in both the grainy documentary footage and the famous still photographs: Eckford is the unforgettable personification of dignity, determination, and stoicism. Surrounded by bigots nearly foaming with rage over the possibility of racial integration, the power of Eckford's quiet humanity and decency in the face of such hatred is impossible to ignore. In the Jim Crow South, where African Americans' failure to be subservient and deferential to whites could get a person killed, Elizabeth Eckford's insistence in carrying herself with dignity and purpose to the school's entrance was a direct and intentional challenge to racism. (LEARN to teach the integration of Little Rock with the Facing History curriculum, Choices in Little Rock.)
- Grace Lorch, the white woman who guided Elizabeth through the angry crowd and away from the area is another example of understated courage. Grace Lorch knowingly cashed in on all the privilege and solicitude afforded to southern white women in order to shield Eckford from the enraged crowd. Both women were conscious upstanders who risked personal safety in service of a greater ethical principle. Even more astounding, this was the 1950s, a time when women were esteemed for their success as wives and mothers, not as movers and shakers. There was little social reward for taking such action or going against the established norm. (SEE Grace Lorch's action in the film, Eyes on the Prize.)
- Martha Sharp, the wife of a minister who was asked to lead a rescue operation in Europe in response to Nazi atrocities. She made the decision to leave her own children and her home in New England to rescue Jewish children in Europe during World War II. She violated gender expectations and sacrificed her personal safety and family relationships to stand up to injustice across the Atlantic Ocean. (EXPLORE Martha's decision and the context of US society at that time in the online module: Two Who Dared.)
- Diane Nash, the young college student who became involved in the nonviolence movement in the South during the Nashville sit-ins, and went on to be a leader of the Freedom Riders. Her direct activism inspired many at the time and today. (DOWNLOAD the Freedom Riders study guide.)
- Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady. Among the many actions she took to challenge injustice, Eleanor's facilitation of and championship of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established a standard for human rights that remains critical for the world. (READ about Eleanor's work in Facing History's publication: Fundamental Freedoms.)
As history teachers, if we only ask students to consider the choices made by those in power, we will find ourselves disproportionately examining the actions of men. ("How did Governor Faubus push the issue? What did President Eisenhower do in response?") Facing History asks us to recognize and acknowledge the profound impact of personal choice, not just on individuals but on society as a whole. Moreover, Facing History encourages that we see those individuals and their choices in context. When we help our students understand both the context and significance of women's actions, we encourage our students to think critically about what is included in the "mainstream" telling of an event and why.
As Elizabeth Cady Stanton said in her "Our Girls" speech in 1880, "I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns." One important way to do this is to investigate the contributions of women during all time periods that we study.
Who would you add to this list of "women of courage"?