Women still breaking barriers

Why does it take so long for the accomplishments of entire groups of people to get the recognition they deserve? History is filled with doers of great deeds, people who were part of something big but never recognized because those who wrote the record found them unworthy.

Some of the most unsung of these heroes are women, boxed in by centuries of misperception about their ability to flourish in all the ways humans do.

The popular movie “Hidden Figures” rights the injustice of historical perceptions about race and gender that have negated the achievements of strong women. While it’s no secret that NASA’s brilliant mathematicians were instrumental in propelling John Glenn into space, it is surprising that some of them were African-American women.

Why should it be? As wonderful as it is to celebrate the story of these three brilliant people, who incidentally were female and African-American, the fact remains that the road to this point has been long and littered with barriers.

Not the least of which were the countless everyday messages that boxed women into constrained roles of limited purpose. Who were the unknown women who lived and died, leaving no imprint or record except that created by those who presumed to express “truths” about the gamut of womanhood, from her intellect to her behavior?

Much of what we know about the “Republican womanhood” of our mothers and grandmothers was expressed in the daily or weekly newspaper. And at that, the focus was on white women, leaving huge gaps in our understanding of what was even expected of women of color.

Finding our lives chronicled in the historical record can be comical, jarring, aggravating, and above all, surreal.

Were we smart? We know the answer to that, but the other issue is how were we to express our intelligence? Concerns about the education of women in 19th-century America sound discordant beside our celebration of the highly educated trio of women who are the subjects of the movie. This snippet from the August 19, 1851 Fredonia Censor expresses a “truth” widely understood by chroniclers of that era: “In female education, we aim more at the gilding than the gold — the ornament than the requirement.”

How decorative. A common refrain in contemporary newspapers upheld the value of education for women as long as it served to create worthy companions for men and mothers with the wherewithal to nurture their sons’ civic spirit. Make no mistake — the home was still the only proper sphere of womanhood.

An 1854 Censor article defines a “true” woman as loving more than reasoning, a seeker of cleanliness and beauty, never a scolder, and one who dreams of legislating only in the nursery. Throughout the 1850s, the Censor used its rhetorical muscle to push back against “petticoat philosophers” who were seeking not just the vote, but also, access to the halls of political power. In a September 1852 account of a convention in Syracuse, the paper flexed its muscle with quotation marks, recounting the “clever” women asserting their “alleged rights” to extend the vote “to the whole petticoat population.”

Could anyone miss the point delivered by crafty punctuation?

Outside the home, one would never hear of a female minister or lawyer. But a milliner the likes of Mrs. H.L. Willey, whose Fredonia store was stocked with the “latest styles for spring and summer,” enjoyed cultural sanction. Not so the “masculine” Trenton woman who made carriages, guns, and other metalwork — a woman so anomalous as to merit space in the June 27, 1854 Censor. Also noteworthy were a female Washington Union correspondent and two “girl” typesetters whose employment stirred up pushback from the Philadelphia newspaper’s union of typesetters.

A searing February 1854 summation of Mrs. Elizabeth Jenkins’ speech about dress reform and employment peevishly claims that there are no barriers to women becoming house builders, boot makers, or welders. In fact, the author seems more perturbed that this public-speaking “petticoat reformer” wore bloomers than that she advocated for female employment.

We have come far. Today’s women are mechanics, doctors, professors, lawyers, and ministers. Some are scientists, some teachers, and others “domestic engineers.” They are all of infinite worth.

And as far as I know, none of them wear petticoats.

Renee Gravelle is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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