Most people don’t consciously think about women’s contributions when they talk about American history. The names Sojourner Truth or Frida Kahlo may sound familiar, but it is difficult to understand the magnitude of their impact because their stories are only told in fragments. Women’s contributions are an underappreciated and falsely presented aspect of textbook American history.
As an Asian and African-American woman, or Woman of Color, I became all too used to learning more about the men who oppressed and exploited my ancestors than the history of my ancestors themselves. It wasn’t until I began the process of self-educating myself and took college courses in the Women’s Studies Department that everything started to come together. I made many new friends in my first year of college, Black women authors by the names of Alice, bell, Toni, and Audre, Angela, and Maya. My bookshelf went from lightly used to heavily clustered as I read more about Black feminist literature. I couldn’t believe it, I felt like I had hit the jackpot. To see experiences that I identified with on the pages in front of me was the most amazing feeling ever. I want all women who yearn for knowledge about their history to feel this way.
For marginalized women whose history is erased or inaccurately retold time and time again, learning the truth about their communities is like finding the final missing puzzle piece. It’s not that women haven’t made remarkable contributions to literature, science, activism, and the arts. It’s simply that their stories aren’t told with the same respect and frequency as men’s history.
When women’s history is taught, it’s usually condensely summarized into a couple paragraphs that usually center around white women – and even then the history isn’t completely accurate. Fortunately, we are not limited to our poorly written textbooks when it comes to educating ourselves about women’s history. I value spaces that showcase women’s voices, contributions, and struggles because I understand that these are so often left out of school textbooks. The Women’s Museum of California is just one of the many centers for learning about that missing puzzle piece because it celebrates women of all backgrounds and fields.
To understand Sojourner Truth’s fantastic contributions to the feminist and anti-slavery movement is to understand the systematic forces that shaped her identities. Racism and sexism, or a hybrid of the two which is called “misogynoir” for its anti-Black woman sentiments, affected Truth in unimaginable ways. Similarly, Frida Kahlo struggled against ableism, bisexual erasure, an unhealthy intimate relationship with her husband Diego Rivera, and sexism. Despite all these obstacles, Kahlo was able to come into her own as a painter and feminist, and ultimately transcend the narrative that she was “just Rivera’s wife.”
Effective spaces for celebrating women’s history, like the Women’s Museum, would acknowledge the factors that worked against women. These spaces would be most educational if they considered intersectionality, or the overlapping of multiple identities when discussing the contributions of women. When the textbook fails to tell our history, we must write it ourselves because we are the only ones who can truthfully tell our stories.
When I walk into a space that caters to women who want to learn about their pasts, presents, and futures, I’m flooded with a sense of belonging. Here I am in a room adorned with posters, photographs, and other artifacts that were made by or belonged to women. Here I am in a room curated by women who believe that our stories deserve to be told with accuracy and respect because women’s history is American history.