The Women Whose Names We Don’t Know
March 25, 2015
I was asked by the rad women Margo Tanenbaum, of The Fourth Musketeer, and Lisa Taylor, of Shelf-employed, to write a guest post for their Kid Lit Women’s History Month blog.
Here’s the piece:
My children’s book Rad American Women A-Z is an A-Z book of, well, rad women from American history. For each letter of the alphabet I profile a diverse, fascinating American woman who faced adversity and made a difference. Short bios are accompanied by bright, bold papercuts from artist Miriam Klein Stahl. Some of the women are well-known, some are more obscure, and they represent several centuries, various cultural backgrounds, and a broad swath of careers and accomplishments. A is for Angela Davis, B is for Billie Jean King, C is for Carol Burnett, and on and on…That is, until you get to X.
X is a tough letter in the English language. It’s the third least commonly used letter (behind Q and Z), and most dictionaries include only about 120 words that begin with X. Anyone who’s read a children’s ABC book knows that the entry for X is usually….a stretch. It’s good news for the xenops, the xolo, and uh, xanthan gum, and often people cheat a bit (eXit! Xtra! Xmas!) But for this book, I didn’t want to force it or fudge. So when a friend suggested that X stand for “the women whose names we don’t know”, it felt like a possible solution.
As I embarked on my lengthy research process, learning more and more about women’s history and the incredible stories of the women who’ve endured and accomplished so much, this ‘X’ idea increasingly resonated. I consider myself well-versed in women’s history—I’m a feminist writer! I was a Women’s Studies major! I read books about women’s history for fun!—but the more I read and researched, the more I realized how much I don’t know. How many names and stories haven’t made it into even the most progressive revisionist history books, and how many names and stories we just won’t ever know. I regularly stumbled upon a woman I’d never heard of, and found myself thinking “She’s amazing! How have I not heard of her?!” It also made me think about ‘greatness’ and how we select our hero/in/es. While it’s essential that we celebrate specific individuals—exactly what I do with this book—one can’t escape from the realization that none of these women worked alone. That even the most trailblazing groundbreakers had friends, lovers, mothers, mentors, and other contemporaries who aren’t always part of the stories. Some of that is just the nature of the scope of history—we literally can’t capture and tell every story—but it’s still a significant factor. How do we define and determine greatness and heroism? What kinds of feats and deeds do we celebrate, and what goes unheralded?
So X is for the women whose names we don’t know. The idea of a friend became the entry. Miriam came up with the idea to create silhouettes of women engaged in myriad tasks, and I sat down to write an entry for it. The first few drafts were sad. Like, really sad. And pretty angry. I wrote and I cried as I thought about all that women have been denied—education, property, personal decisions, their own children—and how these denials have especially impacted women of color and other marginalized individuals. Once I’d worked through the negative emotions, though, I began to see hope in the phrase as well. I thought about my own daughter, her friends, and the high school students that I work with almost every day. I thought about all the young women whose names we don’t know because they have yet to invent their big invention or embark on their great journey. The women who will shape our futures aren’t famous yet—because they’re 5, or 15, or 50. We don’t know their names now, but we will, and that is what X is for.
X is for the women
whose names we don’t know.
It’s for the women we haven’t learned about yet, and the women whose stories we will never read.
X is for the women whose voices weren’t heard.
For the women who aren’t in the history books, or the Halls of Fame, or on the postage stamps and coins.
For the women who didn’t get credit for their ideas and inventions.
Who couldn’t own property or sign their own names.
The women who weren’t taught to read or write but managed to communicate anyway. Who weren’t allowed to work but still supported their families, or who worked all day but weren’t paid as much as the men.
X is for the radical histories that didn’t get recorded.
X is for our mothers, our matriarchs, our ancestors.
The nurses and neighbors and aunties and teachers.
The women who made huge changes and the women who made dinner.
X is for the hands that built and shared and wrote and fought.
The bodies that birthed and worked and strained.
The feet that walked, ran, jumped, and balanced.
The minds that dreamed and desired, the hearts that loved.
X is also for all that’s happening now and all that is still to come.
X is for the women in homes and offices and fields and labs and classrooms,
who invent and transform and build and create.
It’s for you and for me, the girls and boys and men and women and everyone in between helping to make the world safe, compassionate, and healthy.
X is for all we don’t know about the past, but X is also for the future.
X marks the spot where we stand today.
What will you do to make the world rad?
Now this page is the favorite of my daughter Ivy, as well as Miriam’s 8-yr old daughter Hazel. Hazel reads it over and over, while Ivy, who’s still learning to read, studies each silhouette image, selecting which ones are “mama” and which ones are “her.” She usually selects them all for herself—the scientist, the gardener, the construction worker, even the skateboarder. She hasn’t been on a skateboard yet, and is still mastering the bike with no training wheels. And that’s why I love it when she chooses that one—because the future is enormous, and so is her potential.