Power Tool #1: Know Your History

Women’s history is the primary tool of their emancipation. ~Gerda Lerner

This week I’d love to know your thoughts about the first of the 9 Ways power tools, “Know your history and you can create the future of your choice.” Do you agree with that statement?

I wrote it because women have been all but written out of history. Yet we are always everywhere giving birth to everyone and doing all kinds of important things despite barriers.

Take the story of Sybil Luddington. At age sixteen, on April 26, 1777, Sybil rode through towns in New York and Connecticut warning that the British were coming. She gathered enough volunteers to beat back the British army the next day, and her ride was twice as long as Paul Revere’s. Yet, unless you live in the small Connecticut town named for her, it’s doubtful you’ve ever heard of her. Sometimes she is called the “female Paul Revere” but couldn’t he just as well be called “the male Sybil Luddington?”

How many women did you learn about in high school history classes? Bet you can count them on one hand without using all your fingers. So here’s your chance to rectify that. Tell 9 Ways readers (and me) about a woman or women in history that you feel wasn’t given her due by the history books.

We’re going to be talking about these questions all week. I’m looking forward to your thoughts and stories.


  1. Nate Levin on October 11, 2010 at 10:23 am

    Carrie Chapman Catt was one of the first women in America to exercise significant political power. She was one of the main leaders of the woman suffrage movement during the first two decades of the 20th century.

    Her organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), had a million members, and helped to force the political establishment to open the voting booth to women. Their ultimate victory came in 1920, with the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    Catt knew how to gain and exercise power, and to set her own terms for the power she wanted. To give one example, when Catt became president of NAWSA for the second time in 1915 she did so only on the condition that she could select her own board of directors. She had learned from her previous term as president that the board of directors could stymie her efforts if it did not share her views.

    In the 1920s and 1930s Catt was one of the best known and most admired women in the world. It is regrettable that her fame has faded. She could well be a role model for the modern female chief executive of a large organization. Catt is best known now as the founder of the League of Women Voters, which is the successor to NAWSA and continues the fight for political reform.

  2. Serena Freewomyn on October 11, 2010 at 11:11 am

    Loved hearing about Sybil – although the Revolutionary War era isn’t really my bag of chips.

    I’m working on a book about Susan B. Anthony. As I research, I keep turning up the names of women who participated in the suffrage movement who didn’t gain the same level of recognition as Anthony. One of those women was Susa Young Gates, the daughter of Mormon leader Brigham Young. Susa was a prolific writer, and with Emmeline B. Wells, she founded a newspaper called The Women’s Exponent. Everyone who worked for the paper, from the writers to the typesetters, was a woman. They used the paper to campaign for suffrage. Susa was invited to join the national suffrage leadership by Susan B. Anthony, but she turned down the invitation because it was contingent upon her renunciation of the Mormon Church.

    Another group of sassy frontier ladies that I’m dying to learn more about is the city council and mayor of Kanab. In the late 1800’s, this Utah town was run entirely by women. How did that happen?

  3. Gloria Feldt on October 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Nate and Serena, thanks for those stories. They are great examples, and since I’m talking at the Susan B Anthony/Elizabeth Cady Stanton leadership event at the University of Rochester this Friday, you can be sure I’ll be citing both of you.

    Nate, in No Excuses, I talk about how when the suffrage movement evolved into the LWV and similar educational-type groups rather than carrying forth with a strong progressive agenda which the women’s movement had in its earlier days, it lost a lot of its power. What are your thoughts about that?

    I learned so much from the LWV about how government operates, so I’m not discounting its importance. Just saying that after Catt and the more conservative voices in the suffrage movement won out over the Alice Paul call for continued activism, women won the vote but not the policy agenda.

  4. Nate Levin on October 11, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    As a second generation member of the LWV I would add that the League is a lobbying organization as well as a source of eduction. While the League clearly does not now have great clout at the national level, at the local level it remains influential. And that influence evidently goes back to its founding in 1920. According to reading that I’m doing, the League was very active in challenging the local power structure in the South and in Connecticut during the 1920s, and was effective in some ways in some places. I’d guess that the story was the same elsewhere around the country.

    Eleanor Flexner, in “Century of Struggle”, suggests that Catt and NAWSA made a mistake in not aggressively pushing for inclusion in the innner circle of the established political parties once they had won the suffrage battle in 1920. She proposes that they should have transformed the non-partisan idealism that they mainly lived by up until then.

    I am hesitant to disagree with Flexner’s judgment on any point, but I do feel that a good gendered history of the U.S. in the period 1920-1960 has not yet been written. When such a book arrives, it will stand as a bridge between Flexner’s classic work covering the period 1820 to 1920 and Gail Collins’s wonderful “When Everything Changed” about the period 1960 to the present.

  5. Gloria Feldt on October 12, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Some great comments via twitter!

    # Ms_Greta I’m sorry to say that even though I was taking HS history classes as recently as 10 years ago, we only learned about 2 or 3 🙁 about 2 hours ago via web in reply to GloriaFeldt

    # Jen Myronuk jenmyronuk I’m inspired by Admiral Grace Murray Hopper ~1st woman to receive the Nat’l Medal of Tech in 1991, mother of the computing era. about 2 hours ago via Twitter for iPhone in reply to GloriaFeldt

    # Jen Myronuk great discussion topic~check out @herstoryus (HarperCollins). 850 U.S. women spanning 400 yrs. http://www.herstoryatimeline.com about 2 hours ago via Twitter for iPhone in reply to GloriaFeldt

    # Gretchen Sisson Learned about “Molly Pitcher” in Rev. War section in 3rd grade. So pissed to then learn she’s fictional. Where were real wmn? about 2 hours ago via web

    # ShelbyKnox I discovered #wmnhist, I felt legacy of female power, courage running thru me, saw what I could/must be in the world #noexcuses

  6. Writing Women Back Into History | GLORIA FELDT on October 13, 2010 at 8:39 am

    […] Monday I told you the story of Sybil Luddington, a Revolutionary War hero who has been all but erased from history.  Since men have traditionally […]

  7. Sarah on October 14, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Sorry I’m late to the game, but please allow me to highly recommend Sallie Reneau, one of the founding mothers of the first public university for women in the United States. A hundred years before women were given the right to vote, Sallie Reneau moved political wheels to allow women the opportunity for higher education and the self-sufficiency that often comes with it. And we should learn not just about Reneau but also the university she envisioned and established. Co-educational since a landmark USSC decision in 1982, Mississippi University for Women maintains high-quality education with a women’s emphasis in all areas of study.


    • Gloria Feldt on October 14, 2010 at 1:43 pm

      Wow, not someone I had heard about.
      And you aren’t late to the game–this question will be open for as long as the 9 Ways blog is here!

  8. David M. Dismore on October 14, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    On October 8, 1911, powered flight was less than eight years old, so going aloft was still a pretty courageous and assertive act under any circumstances. But Matilde Moisant (1878-1964), the second licensed woman pilot in the U.S., not only defied danger and the patriarchal attitudes of her time that day, but a local sheriff and his deputies as well.

    When the Nassau County (Long Island, NY) Sheriff proclaimed to those at the Nassau Boulevard Field in Garden City that “Any one who flies from this field today, the same being Sunday, will be arrested,” all the male pilots and bystanders watched in surprise and admiration as Matilde told the sheriff that he could not arrest her until she had actually committed the “offense” of Sunday flying, which she intended to do. With that, she climbed into her aeroplane, had Mike the Mechanic give the propeller a spin, and went airborne, accompanied by the sound of the grounded pilots’ clapping. She then headed straight to her family’s nearby airfield, a car full of the local Keystone Kops soon trailing after her. Emboldened by her action, two male pilots then decided to take their planes up, waving to the Sheriff from on high as a way of seconding her assertion that aviators had the same right to Sunday travel as drivers.

    When Matilde arrived at Moisant Field, she quickly traded her pilot’s seat for one in the automobile of a supporter, alerted to the situation by a call to the field, and they prepared to head for the county line. But three deputies arrived, jumped out of their car, and began walking toward her, over the objections of another deputy sheriff – this one an aviator himself on duty at the little airport, who demanded to see a warrant before they could enter private property. Having none, they tried to rush past him, but he fought back, and was soon assisted by a crowd of angry aviators, fans and bystanders. While the battle raged, Matilde made her way to another, much faster car. It could easily outrace the cops, but soon after escaping, she told the driver to go back, because she had done nothing wrong, and wanted to confront the charges. By this time, the deputies had been successfully ejected from the field, and were much too busy dealing with at least 300 of Matilde’s militant supporters to even think about an arrest, so she was able to simply go back home, happy to have set a local precedent, and let the sheriff know just what he would be up against should he try to enforce his edict again.

    So next time you fly on a Sunday (presumably without fear of arrest) remember Matilde Moisant !

  9. Gloria Feldt on October 14, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Thank you, David! A great story of how to make social change by doing it.

  10. Becky on October 19, 2010 at 1:33 am

    There are a few women scientists that were pretty important. People have often heard of Marie Curie. We’ve named our daughter Franklin after Rosalin who was probably one of the least understood of the famous women scientists both because she died young of cancer (probably from the unshielded X-ray she used in her work) and because the men she worked with were quite egotistical and self-promoting (even as scientists go). Her work was absolutely critical in understanding the structure, and therefore function, of DNA. There is a great graphic novel that is about women scientists called “Dignifying Science”, and a cute little snippit book called “Uppity Women of Medieval Times”.

  11. Alexandra Kinias on October 19, 2010 at 10:11 pm

    Huda Shaarawi (1879-1947, Egyptian feminist nationalist activist, played an important role in the early twentieth century Egyptian feminist movement. Even though she was born to a wealthy family, yet she was confined to the harem where she spent her early years. However, she was privileged to be taught how to read and write both Arabic and French by private teachers as most of the elite children of wealthy families.

    Shaarawi was involved in philanthropic projects throughout her life. In 1908, she created the first philanthropic society run by Egyptian women, offering social services for poor women and children. She played an important role in the Egyptian nationalist movement against the British occupation where she organized and led the first women’s march during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 against the British.

    Sharawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU), which she headed until her death. The EFU focused on various issues regarding women’s suffrage and education. In May 1923 she attended the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance in Rome with a delegation of Egyptian women. In a speech at this conference, Shaarawi advanced her conception of Egyptian feminism. She argued, first, that women in ancient Egypt had equal status to men, and only under foreign domination had women lost those rights. Second, she argued that Islam also granted women equal rights to men, but that the Koran had been misinterpreted by those in power.

    Upon her return from the Rome conference, Shaarawi removed her veil in public for the first time, a signal event in the history of Egyptian feminism.

    Even though only some of her demands were met during her lifetime, she is widely credited for setting the foundation upon which the later feminist movements were gained. Sharawi remains the symbol of the Egyptian women’s liberation movement.

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