Women’s History Month

March is Women’s History Month.  As the mother of five daughters, I have worked hard to teach them that women matter, women are important, and women can make a difference.  And not just as behind the scenes supporter of men.

This is important to me for a number of reasons not just because I am a woman.  My mother, who was an unskilled worker with very little education, ended up divorcing my father and raising eight children with minimal child support and the inability to make a reasonable living.  We spent much of our childhood with very little food, utilities being cut off, and bill collectors calling.  My mother-in-law was a widow at a young age with two of her four children left to raise.

So, by virtue of my life experiences, it became part of my DNA, so to speak, to make sure that my girls would be independent and self supporting.  Because you never know what life is going to throw your way.

Unfortunately, the promotion of women in history did not really exist until relatively recently.  The history books to which I was exposed and which my children have had have been filled almost exclusively with the accomplishments of men, specifically white men.  Women and people of color got cursory attention at best.  And while that may be changing, the focus on Women’s History Month reminded me of a project that my daughters all had to do in 4th grade.

We live in Missouri and in the 4th grade, children learn about the state history and constitution.  One of the projects assigned by our local school district was to pick a famous Missourian and do a report on them.

The list included exclusively men.

The list even included Walt Disney.  Really.  While he may have been born here, he certainly did not accomplish anything in our state.  So the list included men, even if they did not do anything of importance in our state, but did not include a single woman.

The good news was that my children were not required to pick someone off the list.  And the person that they profiled could also be a living person.

So when it came time for my middle child to do her project and, after much research, she decided to profile Harriett Woods.

Harriett Woods was a politician who was the first woman elected to state office and served as Lieutenant Governor.  She lost a Senate race in a close election.  Her loss was primarily attributed to her lack of campaign money which ran out preventing her from advertising the last few weeks of the election.  This prompted the creation of Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports the election of women.  Harriett Woods was a founding member, past president, and supporter of the National Political Women’s Caucus which has helped, directly and indirectly, to increase the numbers of women participating in politics today.

Harriett Woods’ political career started as a result of the need for her local city government to hear the concerns and needs of a young mother whose three small children could not nap in the afternoon due to a noisy manhole cover that the local officials, all men, did not think was important enough to repair.  Her career started with a successful petition to get it fixed and eventually an election to that local body.  Never underestimate the power of a mother on a mission.  Harriett Woods died of leukemia at age 79 in February, 2007.

My middle child contacted Ms. Woods and was successful in interviewing her and writing up a very nice report.  But, it did not end there.  Ms. Woods wrote a book, Stepping Up to Power, The Political Journey of American Women, in 2000 and was being interviewed on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show.  My daughter’s teacher called into the show, and they put my daughter on the radio!  We still have the recording of her beautiful, 4th grade voice chatting with Diane Rehm and Harriett Woods from her 4th grade classroom.

My daughter in 4th grade.  Don’t you just love the American-themed shirt and pencil earrings?

We then went to the local book signing, and Ms. Woods wrote in her book, “For Rachel – a very special young woman!  Warm best wishes, Harriett Woods.”

I don’t know what difference this has made in my daughter’s life or in the lives of her classmates or her teacher, but I hope that the list of famous Missourians has expanded over the years to include a broader spectrum of people.

I do know that my middle child is strong and smart.  She is a leader.  I don’t want or expect for her to be famous, but I do hope that she remains the thoughtful, caring, and committed person that she is today throughout her life.

And for everyone, boys and girls, men and women, I hope that more thought is given to include women who paved the way, often through anonymity, to make this world a better place in which to live.

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