As part of Women’s History Month, I was asked to give a speech last week on the importance of women’s history, why I write it and how we can all participate in women’s history. I’ve cut out the part at the beginning where I introduced myself and my books to the audience to get to the good part. Hope you enjoy.
Since I was a teenager, I’ve had a natural aversion to the idea that anyone’s life can be forgotten. And when I started studying women’s history as part of my research, I realized that has happened to hundreds of generations of women. I have nothing against men, but the reality is, history as we know it was written by white, rich men. That means that people of color, women and other minorities were left out because they weren’t considered important.
That that has to change. How are we as women going to know the breadth of our history and our capacity for strength if we don’t have role models to look back and admire and pattern our lives upon? As women, for a long time all we had in Western history were Cleopatra, Queen Boudicca of the Celts, Elenore of Aquitaine, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, and Susan B. Anthony. And that is slim pickings, especially if you are anything other than white, European or American, and rich.
It is my personal mission to rescue forgotten women, to tell their stories and elevate women’s place in general in history. We need a variety of stories from all time periods. We need to see a large swath of life experiences, of different types of strength. A lot of times when we hear the words “strong woman” or “strong female character” our minds automatically jump to a kick-ass superhero type of woman. But as we all know, that is not the only kind of strength nor is it even the most common. What about the mental, emotional and spiritual strength of women who have overcome rape, abuse, loss of children, war, and every type of calamity to live on? If you have ever visited an old graveyard and seen how young so many women died and paused over the number of tiny graves around them—their children who died in infancy or before—you have witnessed true strength. Of those who survived, some went on to do great things, while others lived quiet lives, but they all mattered. And we need to know their stories so that we feel seen. That is what gives us the courage to make history of our own.
Thankfully, I’m not alone. There are many other authors who write about little-known women. Marie Benedict is one of my favorites. She has written about Albert Einstein’s wife, Hedy Lamarr and Clementine Churchill. There is also Melanie Benjamin, who told the story of Charles Lindberg’s wife; Paula McLain, who wrote about Hemmingway’s wives and Beryl Markham, a famous aviatrix; the duo of Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, who have written about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Patsy, and Eliza Hamilton; C.W. Gortner, who has told the stories of Coco Chanel, Sarah Bernhardt and Marlene Dietrich; and Mary Sharrat who has written about St. Hildegard of Bigen, mystic Margery Kempe, composer Alma Mahler, and Aemilia Bassano Lanier, who may have been Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, just to name a few.
Your Role in Women’s History
But you don’t have to be a writer to have a role in women’s history. That just happens to be where my talent lies and how I best express myself. Yours could be something totally different: music, dance, sculpting, painting, photography—anything. As long as you keep a record. It is those records that will secure your place in history. Keep a journal, a family cookbook, save newspaper clippings or love letters. You don’t ever have to share them with anyone if you don’t want to.
I am of the firm belief that everyone has something to offer the world, something that when looked back upon by future generations, will set them apart from everyone else. You don’t have to be a Ruth Bader Ginsburg or a Kamala Harris to make history. You make history just by being you.
There are so many wonderful “lost” stories that live in our memories or our family traditions that would benefit others if we just told them. Whether they are wisdom that can be gained from the old ways of doing things like family medicinal recipes passed through generations or life lessons that came from surviving hard times, we all have something to share.
That’s why it is important to tell your story. If you want you can write a memoire for yourself, your family or to be published. You can start a blog or keep a journal. Just document your life.
For researchers, journals are one of the best ways to truly understand what living in another time was like. I was lucky enough to find the journal of Elizabeth Merriweather when I was researching the biography I just completed. She was a cousin by marriage of my subjects, Virginia and Francis Minor. While the Minors themselves did not leave any personal papers behind, reading Elizabeth’s diary gave me an up close and personal look at life during the Civil War in the south. But more importantly, it helped me to understand why Elizabeth held the controversial views she did. In another example, the stories of hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who were killed in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII were saved because a group of 60 of their peers thought to have them keep diaries, take pictures and donate pieces of wartime life like ration books and identification papers. Without those, we would have no idea who those anonymous victims were.
Write down your family stories. We all have that one off-the-wall family member or notorious family story that everyone knows. Why not commit it to paper for future generations, along with everything else you can think of about your family? At some point in our lives, most people yearn to know more about where and who they came from. Recording your family history, not just your genealogical chart, but the stories (whether verified or family legend) that go with it, will be so valuable for future generations, especially in cases were members of the family are estranged or die before others get the chance to ask them the burning questions.
Family stories are more than fact; they are the traditions and lore that are associated with a bloodline. For example, the paternal side of my family has a story about how one member married a Native American woman of the Blackfoot tribe and another about how someone went west with Brigham Young, neither of which I’ve ever tried to verify, but they are part of our lore. On the other hand, we know for a fact that my great-great grandfather helped establish and build Our Lady of the Holy Cross church in Baden, Missouri. On my mom’s side, my grandmother lived through Nazi-occupied Austria during WWII. All of these things provide fodder for telling stories that, while not my own, shape who I am as a person.
You don’t have to be famous in order to set up an archive that will be available to researchers after your death. Most historical societies and some universities will help you with this for a reasonable fee. I know for certain that the State Historical Society of Missouri offers this service. You may not think that your family records, letters, email/social media or other ephemera could ever possibly be of use to anyone. But remember this: When I was researching the family of Virginia and Francis Minor—and trying to reconstruct them from practically nothings—one of the most valuable resources I came across was their family Bible that dated from the early 1800s. I can guarantee you they weren’t thinking “gosh, someday a researcher from St. Louis is going to hold this in her hands and be in awe of the history contained herein” as they were filling in births, deaths and names of slaves in their household. But that is exactly what happened. And letters from Warner Washington Minor to his boss were crucial to me being able to reconstruct his job at the University of Virginia. If these things were important to me as a stranger, imagine how much more a family member would cherish them.
We are all important parts of history, whether we think so or not. Big or small our lives have meaning and impact. Whether or not you consider yourself a good writer, recording your story or those of your family is very important. It is the literary equivalent of carving “I was here” into the universe. You may be fortunate enough to make your mark on history in other ways, but only you know your true story. Tell it or others will tell it for you. You deserve for the world to know who you really are.
If you don’t know where to start, begin by following your dreams and passions. Ben Franklin is quoted as saying, “Write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” Writing about what you love will make it enjoyable and give you a way to focus.
I recently had the chance to read an advance copy of a book written by a friend of mine. I want to leave you with a quote from his book: “Work on what you love. A lot of people are artists in their heads. They have a great idea of what they could create…But the ones who succeed are the ones who are willing to work and thrive on that work. It’s not always fun, but it is wonderful, because the work of an artist is to create something beautiful and offer it on a platter to the world. What greater calling could there be?”