It’s February, which means it’s African American History Month, and I walked into my local library. As I approached the display table of books honoring notable African Americans, I saw ten books, but only one was about a woman – Rosa Parks. She was alone at a table of men. I had to change this.
Why is this a problem? History is made by all of us. One woman in a group of men is not enough to show the breadth of African American History. The presence of women in a group makes a difference. There have been many studies on the impact of women on corporate boards, for example. More than one woman board member is needed to change the dynamics of the board. More than one woman at a table is needed to show the entire scope of history.
I was on a mission and I went into the stacks, found books on African American women in history and added them to the table. I found books on Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Michelle Obama. (I couldn’t find books on Ella Baker or Reverend Dr. Prathia Hall.) Then I took a picture of the changed table. It may seem insignificant to you, but as I watched a woman with her young daughter walk up to the table and look at the books, I knew I had done the right thing. I have nicknamed this practice my “library activism.”
March is a busy month for me because I have found that Women’s History Month is sometimes not even celebrated in some public libraries. In March I have a lot of books to pull and then usually friendly conversations with library staff about celebrating Women’s History Month. Forgetting women of the past affects women of the present.
The erasure of women in history extends well beyond the month of March. Recently I came across a shocker. There is a painted mural depicting the years 1776 through 2000 in United States history in the children’s section of a public library in a very large city. The mural is a timeline consisting of a series of 10 panels. Each panel shows a block of time in American history. In every panel there are approximately four notable Americans and numerous American inventions.
Each panel averages at least three men and one woman. The total number of 34 men includes George Washington, the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Irving Berlin, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Tiger Woods, among many others. Included in the total of nine women are Sacajawea, Betsy Ross, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, and Lucille Ball. I asked myself “Where are the women from the women’s libration movement?” Betty Friedan is not on the timeline, nor is Shirley Chisholm. Where is the image of the iconic Rosie the Riveter? And then I realized that the entire suffrage movement was omitted. How could a timeline of American history not include the achievement of women’s voting rights?
Which women should have been included? Susan B. Anthony, Ida B. Wells, Bessie Coleman, Sojourner Truth, Abigail Adams, Frances Perkins, Marian Anderson, and more.
This timeline is not the fault of any one person, nor is it the fault of the library. It reflects our national consciousness. It is a visual reminder of where our heads are at. We have automatic associations with words and phrases. For example, say the phrase “American Leader” or “inventor” and the image that pops into our minds is usually male. It takes more effort to put a female image in our minds. That’s significant.
Considering this timeline is in the children’s section of the library adds more layers to my experience. How does the underrepresentation of women in history affect a girl’s sense of her place in the world? We often struggle with reasons as to why women and girls reject calling themselves “feminist.” If we can’t see what feminists did for us, why would we identify with them?
We can change this by building a timeline of our history in our minds that shows women of history equally with men. If it’s in our minds, it will be reflected in our world. For instance, when social security and child labor laws are discussed, the person who would rightfully pop into our minds is Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. Perkins is one of the invisible women of our history.
Public libraries are repositories of knowledge and serve as community places where we can gather. They are accessible to all and they are free. Libraries provide us with a great opportunity to build a new and more accurate historical timeline in our minds that includes women equally.
In February and March, if you are in a library help us add more women to the table if it’s needed. Include the librarian in your search for books. Take a picture of the table afterwards! Have a happy African American History Month and Women’s History Month.
Jennifer Lee is a filmmaker who lives in Los Angeles. She has spent many years working on Hollywood films and used her free time (when she had it!) making her own films. Her latest film, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation” is being screened in numerous public libraries across the nation during Women’s History Month. Jennifer was recently named Global Ambassador for the Global Media Monitoring Project.
Image courtesy Jennifer Lee