“When you’re invisible, people assume that you’ve done nothing.” –Edith P. Mayo, Curator Emeritus, Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Women's contributions to America are largely missing from the traditional American History narrative. Representation matters. We build our understanding of what's possible from the world around us; what we can't see is hard to imagine.
In the foreword to Smithsonian American Women: Remarkable Objects and Stories of Strength, Ingenuity, and Vision from the National Collection, Jill Lepore recounts going to visit a local kindergarten class that was studying the American Revolution. Each student had chosen an important figure to study.
"When I'd asked the names of the people they'd picked, they shouted out, all in a tumble: "Benjamin Franklin!" "George Washington!" "Patrick Henry!" "Sam Adams!"
"Anyone here studying a woman?" Silence. "Why not?" I asked. And then a very little, very smart girl wearing a Spiderman T-shirt ... called out, "Because there were no women then!"
This would not be a totally outlandish assumption if you were to check modern high school American History textbooks, according to a study done by the National Women’s History Museum. Of all the people highlighted in the books, only an average of 17% are women. 75% of the women featured are white women, which means that less than 5% of women featured in high school history textbooks are people of color. This means that girls today aren’t seeing themselves in history!
The study also reported that the women who do get featured are treated as individual “heroes” whose work is taken outside of the context of the greater picture of their life and times. This treatment runs contrary to the modern drive to encourage a deeper understanding of history by exploring intersectionality, or the understanding that people's experiences are shaped by their race, class, gender, and sexuality all at the same time. The result of this “hero” treatment is the inclusion of a handful of fairly well-known women about whom a rote, and often incomplete, story arc is told.
For example, the story of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger and the proceeding Montgomery Bus Boycott is very well known; she is positioned in the history as a seamstress who one day decided enough was enough. The larger historical context that is often missing is that Rosa Parks was the secretary of the local NAACP chapter, and that her act of civil disobedience wasn’t the first—or most impactful—of its kind. A mere nine months earlier a 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested in Montgomery for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white woman on a segregated bus. Ms. Colvin was one of five plaintiffs in federal court case Browder v. Gayle. This case eventually went to the United States Supreme Court, who found laws requiring bus segregation were unconstitutional, ordering an end to bus segregation nationwide.
We know that history marches on. If contributions of the historically disenfranchised—women, people of color, poor people, people without formal education, immigrants, LGBTQ+ people, and genderqueer and gender non-binary people to name a few—aren’t explicitly and intentionally included, their contributions will continue to be invisible and undervalued.
The Smithsonian is committed to pushing toward greater equality in history and in the present through the American Women’s History Initiative. This Smithsonian-wide initiative enlists curators, researchers, archivists, educators, and interns who are mentored by Smithsonian staff to reexamine and reinterpret the collections to surface the stories of women and girls that fall beneath the surface. The goal is to rewrite the narrative of American History to include all people.
Smithsonian American Women is the result of that work! More than 100 Smithsonian scholars combed the collection to identify objects and artifacts that document some of the most compelling and complex stories of American women, and their lasting impact on the nation. Self-expression, activism, and the freedom and right to work and live an equal existence—these themes are all reflected in the struggles and triumphs of the women included in the book. (Although we eventually settled at 113 stories, the original list was 2,000 objects long!)
The work of uncovering women’s contributions doesn’t just fall to museums and academics; anyone can contribute. Every day people are working to bring the full picture of history into view by thinking critically about the history that they are presented with: Does it include women and girls? People of color? LGBTQ+ people? Genderqueer and gender non-binary people? If not, dig deeper!
Start exploring the stories of women and girls who’ve laid the foundation for our present moment in history now!