Tiye. Say her name. During the 14th century B.C.E., this Nubian commoner would go on to become one of the most influential women in Egyptian history as the queen mother of Egypt—the first ever to have a temple erected in her name. She was instrumental in coordinating state policy and would act as secretary of state for her pharaoh son Akhenaten.
Fatima al-Fihri. Say her name. This Muslim Tunisian woman, in the ninth century, founded the oldest degree-awarding educational institution in the world. It’s called Qarawiyyin University and it is still operating today.
Wu Zetian. Say her name. She was the only woman to rule China as its empress in all of the nation’s history. She did so during the Tang dynasty of the 7th Century. Her reign brought about peace, cultural diversity and the development and proliferation of Chinese Buddhism.
Theodora. Say her name. During the Byzantine Empire, she was the wife of Emperor Justinian I and is said to have been so intelligent and politically astute that she was the true ruler. She developed the Justinian code which is the foundation for much of existing European law today.
I never once heard mention of any of these names throughout my grade school or collegiate years. Why?
In third grade, the private Christian school I attended used a history text that literally taught that Black people were the descendants of Noah’s cursed son Ham and were therefore doomed to be subhuman. In fifth grade, I remember my mother becoming upset with me because I didn’t know what Black History Month was—as if the same school whose textbooks touted my diminished status would make an effort to teach me or my classmates about Black achievement. Mom never asked about us celebrating Women’s History Month. This was back in 1989.
Before that time, there was a Women’s History Week initiated in 1978 because of the total lack of women’s history in K-12 curriculum. President Jimmy Carter designated March 2-8, 1980 as National Women’s History Week. National Women’s History Month wasn’t actually a thing until Congress declared it so in 1987, and it was meant to recognize the achievements of American women and the contributions they made to building this nation.
But just as America’s history does not start with those who existed and lived on these shores, women’s history doesn’t start with American female achievement. It stretches deep into the annals of global human history and that history matters.
Growing up, history was my least favorite subject because I never saw myself reflected in it. There were few mentions, if at all, of people of color or women; it was mostly a parade of the exploits of White men. And even the supplemental history lessons I received at home never revealed women or women of color as being in positions of power and authority. Why should I, or any other girl I knew, have been interested in reading that kind of story over and again?
Today, I can’t help but be envious of the young women of this age. The advent of the internet and smart technology has provided an access and insight to women’s roles in history like never before. Young ladies today do not have to depend on biased school curriculum, or limited public library resources, or print encyclopedias that grow more obsolete with each passing day. They can find any information they seek on women’s influence and power from all over the world. How amazing is that?!?
Still…why did the internet have to exist for us to have access to these stories? Why weren’t the above-mentioned stories passed down as widely as those narratives of Julius Caesar, Constantine, Alexander the Great, Confucius, or Hannibal? If men are as great as the stories they’ve told of themselves, then what threat are the stories of great women to any of them? Why do women, who constitute 50% of the global population, have their contributions represented in less than 3% of historical text?
This is unacceptable. A mere 41 years of acknowledging that we need to learn more about women throughout history compared to thousands of years of women being written out of history is unacceptable. Not providing both girls and boys with every opportunity to learn about and be inspired by the scores of great women who came before them is unacceptable.
But I’m going to do what I can to change that for the rest of my natural life. Are you with me?
Since last year, Stylist.co.uk has been doing an excellent weekly series on forgotten women throughout history. It is a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic study reaching far back into global history and extending into the modern era. Check it out, Y’all and share it with your friends. And, of course, stay tuned…