Herstory in History


Liz Harris has a story in the Times this week about the opening of a Women's History center inside the New York Historical Society. Having dispensed with Black History in February, we're on to Women's History in March. My friend Mark asks, archly, "how about if we just teach history? Period." He's got a point, but as Liz, herself the mother of a little girl, points out we've got museums for all kinds of other folks, including Bigfoot! Isn't it long-past time women got their due?

US Representative Carolyn Maloney is a pioneering female politician. Like Shirley Chisholm, and Geraldine Ferraro, she came of age in a transition time. Starting work as a teacher, she became the first city council member to have a baby in office, and has a long list of legislative accomplishments. No surprise that she told Harris:

We often hear of Paul Revere’s historic ride, but somehow, our children are not taught about Sybil Ludington. Ludington, the daughter of a colonel in the Continental Army, was just 16 years old when she rode through the night an even greater distance than Revere to warn her father’s troops about the approaching British forces. When stories like these are lost, it is a loss to all of us.

ICS parents need little reminder of how important history is to our approach. Their kids bring home pictures and stories from history every week.  While facts and figures are important to us, these lessons lay a foundation for critical thinking. The knowledge that allows them (eventually) to sift and weigh evidence based on what they know and what they can look up.

So what about Sybil? Well, when historians examined the story, they concluded her famous ride may have been little more than wishful thinking. At the time of her death in 1838 there was no mention of her exploits, and even her claim for a war widow's pension was denied for lack of proof. As with Paul Revere, it seems there was hardly a man  (or woman) alive who remembered.

But that's not the point.

History can be written to reinforce social expectations and support national narratives. It can be written to oppose them. Children who are exposed to a coherent, content-rich curriculum are capable of grasping these larger truths, debating them, perhaps even writing and researching them on their own.

The journey of this young woman from Duchess Country from obscurity to archetype parallels the journey of women more generally. In 1975, one of Representative Maloney's predecessors said "during the past 198 years . . . we have continually attempted to throw off the yoke of discrimination against sex and age. Perhaps we can learn a valuable lesson from Sybil.”

As with Miriam, Helen of Troy, or Joan of Arc, Sybil's exploits need not have happened to inspire us towards American ideals of justice and equity, and to remind us where we have fallen short. The need remains as urgent today as it was in April of 1777, when British troops attacked the Continental Army's arms depot in Danbury.