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women history

Coming to Light

As a mother raising two teenage girls, I find myself thinking about role models quite a bit. These days who do our girls have to admire? I’m grateful for the fact that strong women are out there inventing technologies, running companies, and changing the world. While there are still fences to be climbed and boundaries to be pushed, my daughters’ generation has a growing confidence that they can do anything they put their minds to.

For years females were overlooked in our history books. The good news is authors are now rectifying that discrepancy and filling in the gaps. Women who were overlooked in the past are coming to light. For example, did you know about a woman named Rosalind Franklin whose research was instrumental in the discovery of the structure of DNA? When James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins’ work was published in 1953 however, Franklin did not become a household name. Only now is her story being revealed.

Or perhaps you’ve heard of “The Girl Paul Revere” recently? Sybil Ludington was a courageous young girl who outdid Paul Revere during the American Revolution, riding 40 miles to warn her father’s troops that British had begun burning Danbury, CT. She rode from 9 pm until dawn, at one point defending herself with her father’s musket against the enemy. The good news is Sybil Ludington’s Midnight Ride by Marsha Amstel presents this heroine to young readers. Likewise a movie entitled Sybil Ludington: The Female Paul Review was produced by Kicks Flicks to honor her heroic actions as well.

Lately I’ve been reading books about other woman who were under the radar historically. The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story by Lily Koppel is a non-fiction book that takes a fascinating look into the lives of the wives who were behind NASA’s spacemen. As the jacket flap describes, these women “formed the Astronaut Wives Club, providing one another with support and friendship, coffee, and cocktails.” Until now their lives were often glossed over by the media. Being married to a NASA hero was not all that it was cracked up to be. Reporters invaded their lives. The wives felt like they were under an unspoken contract to make everything at home look as perfect as Camelot. Real strength was required to maneuver their families through the day to day upheavals, including the roving eyes of some of their husbands, or sudden accidents or losses.

In terms of historical fiction, I’ve also discovered a few unsung heroes of late. Many of Susan Vreeland’s books intrigue me. Vreeland is known for her in-depth historical research and for telling a story through an oft overlooked character’s point of view. Clara and Mr Tiffany is one of these stories. Vreeland weaves the story of Clara Driscoll, an amazing woman living in the Gilded Age who, as it turns out, was the designer of nearly all the iconic leaded-glass lamps for Tiffany Studios.

Remember the dragonfly and daffodil patterns in those gorgeous Tiffany lamps? Those were Driscoll’s designs. Without the recent revelation of Driscoll’s letters to her family, Vreeland would never have been able to tell this tale. Like many women of that age, ultimately Clara Driscoll had to choose between having love in her life or a career as Tiffany’s prized glass designer.

Another author who creates fictional stories revolving around lesser known historical women is Jennifer Chiaverini. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the seamstress, Elizabeth Keckley, in Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. The character of Keckley is based on Mrs. Lincoln’s real life dressmaker who fashioned dresses for Washington DC’s elite. As a designer, “Keckley supported the First Lady through years of war, political strife, and devastating personal losses, even as she endured heartbreaking tragedies of her own.” While Chiaverini filled in the historical gaps with story, she researched Keckley’s life thoroughly, using the dressmaker’s own memoir entitled Behind the Scenes (1868).

Certainly all of these revelations give me hope that the tides are changing, that my daughters won’t have to hunt far and wide to find the stories of women who have played vital roles in history. Actually, my ultimate hope is that they will become the very women whom history will remember, women in the forefront instead of the background. An ideal wish? Perhaps! But we mothers like to dream.

Nancy Ling is an Outreach Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read the published version of Nancy Ling’s column in the March 31, 2016 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Alli Palmgren

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