Women of history have never been as simple as we make them out to be

The importance of women in society cannot be understated. We are mothers with healing hands and daughters with enamored eyes. We are increasingly devoted to our work, families and religion. Now, more than ever before, modern women are shaping every aspect of life by taking leadership positions and demanding equal rights in all fields. While society is now much more progressive, we are still greatly uninformed when it comes to the women who came before us and paved the way for our successes and freedoms.

Too often we turn a pitiful gaze to the past, recognizing the struggles our sisters faced and the laws that oppressed them. Many of us believe that these women were silent, submissive, powerless individuals who never stood up for themselves. But this is a lie. 

Throughout history, women have played pivotal roles in constructing society, education, religion and the military, laying the foundations for current generations; but for all their hard work, the public education system still favors male-dominated narratives. 

We are not taught about Deborah Sampson who disguised as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War for America’s liberty. Our schools do not tell us how she was the only woman in our history to earn a full military pension for her service; nor how she led raids and scouted territories against the British; nor how she dug a bullet out of her own thigh to avoid being discovered. This was a strong, patriotic woman who went from being an indentured slave to an American hero — and for all her work, she is still a name left out of the public school lexicon. 

Women of color are attending college at higher rates than ever before, even when compared to their male counterparts, yet their history is often overshadowed by slavery and other hardships, not the great female heroines of their past. 

We are not taught of Cathy Williams who, about 100 years after Sampson’s service, also joined the U.S. military disguised as a man for three years. Despite being born a slave, Williams fought for her right to freedom in the Civil War alongside over 400 women, according to the National Park Service. She is regarded as the only African American woman to have enlisted during that time.

It isn’t just the wars that make these women inspiring women of history. It’s also their devotion to freedom and their unwillingness to submit themselves to oppressive regimes that have landed them a place in history. Despite all their great deeds, however, these remain names we have to research ourselves. 

Along with education, women have surpassed men in their identity as religious people. Across the world, women are more religiously affiliated and attend more worship services than men, according to the Pew Research Center. This is especially true for Christians. 

Although some churches are progressive and recognize how impactful women have been in the Bible, when people think of biblical stories, the narratives that come to mind are still mostly masculine. We think of the 12 disciples, who were men, and not of the women who accompanied them like Joanna, Susanna and Mary (Luke 8:1-3). We focus on the questions the men asked and the miracles they performed as if Mary didn’t also call Jesus “teacher” — as if she was not the first of His disciples who spoke to Him after the resurrection (John 20 NRSV).

When we think of people in the church’s history, we think of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Ambros. We do not often recognize many female bishops in the early days of the church, although we know they existed. We neglect the women whose help in the Protestant Reformation was invaluable. We do not give much thought to the nuns and preachers who performed miracles, nor to the female prophets of the Old Testament, like Deborah, who lead God’s people to victory.

History isn’t a battle to be won. The issue here is not whether women are better than men — and I am not suggesting that men are in any way less important than women. The crux of the issue lies in which stories we choose to tell each other and ourselves. 

We cannot progress forward if we do not know our past. By excluding important female heroes from our history lessons, we are ignoring an entire group’s troubles and successes. By remaining silent on the issue, we are pushing forth a narrative that only the women of today are strong, independent and hardworking, when the fact is, we have always been this way. The difference now is that we have the agency to tell our stories loud and proud. While life hasn’t been easy for everyone, there have always been women ready to fight for their rights and to speak for themselves.