Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about why women’s history matters. Why telling the whole story is not just about reconstructing a more accurate past, but about creating new narratives for the future.
Yesterday I asked my six-year-old daughter one of the standard questions adults ask children: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’
‘A scientist, an artist, and an animal doctor,’ she replied confidently.
I was awed. “Sounds good,” I said.
(OK, I know the first pick has much to do with her kid-crush on a science-loving Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, but I made a mental note to add “science stuff” to her Christmas list anyway.)
Still, here’s the thing – her choices also left me anxious.
We all know it’s not enough for our young girls to list off the kind of dream jobs they’d like to do. They have to keep believing that anydream job is available to them and that they have the stereotype-smashing smarts to follow through.
One heartbreaking study published in the journal Science last year showed how six-year-old girls were more likely to associate brilliance with boys than their own gender. It’s possible, the study claimed, that gender stereotyping can shape a child’s career ambitions at a young age, and so push girls away from specifically STEM-related jobs that are perceived as requiring brilliance.
And this is why women’s history matters.
For girls, knowing about brilliant women can inspire them to take the steps and opportunities towards their own brilliance.
They can use the legacy of female role models to leap into a future we can only imagine – one that readily accepts and celebrates women’s contributions.
So how do we help them take this leap?
Firstly, we have to do the work of recognizing for ourselves the achievements of women across history in literature, arts, science, sport, politics, community and all other areas of life.
And we need to talk about them. I wrote here about the importance of citing women in your work if you’re a writer. But a “Did you know?” conversation with your kids about a lesser known female first can rocket a young girls sense of what is possible, and build respect for the achievements of both men and women in young boys.
Then, of course, there are books.
There are always rich, wonderful books.
And, as Myra Pollack Sadker, a pioneer in the study of gender bias in America’s schools, famously said: “Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.”
So buy books about inspiring, interesting, incredible women. Women who broke the mold or made their own. Women like Marie Curie, Frieda Kahlo,Raymonde de LaRoche, Gertrude Earle, Charlotte E. Ray, Jane Goodhall, and Maya Angelou.
And don’t stop. Support the little girl in your life in finding strength and power from those who came before her, so that in doing so, she knows her worth is so much and more because of this woman-full history.
Photo Source: UnSplash; by Jessica Podraza