By: Jillian Hegedus
In third grade, we had to pick a biography and write a report about a famous ‘mover and shaker’ from history. I was out sick the day the rest of the class got to select their books and the only one left was one on Susan B. Anthony. I had no idea who she was, but being a voracious reader, I tore into the book and devoured her story. She lived during a time when women had few rights; her education was limited because she was a woman, her job prospects were minimal, she wasn’t allowed to vote in elections, and was barred from speaking on behalf of causes she was passionate about.
The world Susan B. Anthony’s biography described stood in stark contrast to my own. Growing up in the 90s, I was surrounded by powerful women like the Spice Girls who preached “Girl Power!” I witnessed Mia Hamm and her team put women’s soccer on the map. I was blissfully unaware that being born a girl meant that life would be more challenging or that I wasn’t equal to the boys in my class.
Reading this book made me even more of an obnoxious know-it-all than I had previously been. I made it my mission to let everyone know that women were not actually equal to men in the eyes of the law and we had only been given the right to vote 80 years prior. My enlightened crusade fell deaf on the ears of my fellow nine-year-olds. Turns out third graders aren’t always the best target audience for one’s first activist mission, but alas I persisted. I would dress up as Susan B. Anthony for school presentations and do any project I could on women's rights.
Reading about Susan B. Anthony ignited a fire in me that hasn’t gone out even though it started blazing over 23 years ago. Because that is what stories do–they teach us, they inspire us, and they open up worlds and experiences we may not have heard about otherwise. When the JCI team was discussing how to kick off Women’s History Month, I wanted to use our platform to share stories of extraordinary women–because it was a story about one woman that completely altered my own trajectory.
As we look to learn more about the incredible women who have shaped our nation’s history, there is no better place than Look What She Did – a nonprofit committed to telling HER story, one extraordinary woman at a time. Their archive of stories features both well and lesser known women who have had an impact throughout history. While I love so many of the stories they have in their archives, these three are among my favorites both because of who they’re about and the woman telling the story. The three stories featured below are about Anne Hutchinson, Carol Downer, and Sojourner Truth.
Anne Hutchinson was a religious and spiritual advisor who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony after angering dogmatic Puritan (male) leaders. She, her eleven children, and all of her followers went on to found Rhode Island.
Carol Downer is a feminist lawyer and non-fiction author who has spent her career dedicated to abortion rights and women’s health around the world. She was very active in the women’s liberation movement and after suffering from a dangerous, illegal abortion–she spent a lot of life advocating for abortion access and talking to women about healthcare concerns that at the time were taboo subjects.
Sojourner Truth (Isabella Baumfree) was born into slavery and escaped to freedom in 1826. She renamed herself Sojourner Truth in 1843 and became a prominent abolitionist, women's rights activist. For her work during the Civil War, she was invited to the White House to meet Abraham Lincoln. Her most famous speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?” was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women's Rights Convention.
I’ve always been fascinated by Anne Hutchinson, one of the founders of Rhode Island. During a time when women had few rights, she left Puritan society to form a more tolerant branch of Christianity that prioritized grace and love over rules and “piety.” Heidi is not only a captivating storyteller, but also a fierce advocate for a woman’s right to choose. Through #VOTEPROCHOICE, Heidi works to ensure that women continue to have access to safe, legal abortions is so important as states like Texas pass restrictive abortion laws.
Carol Downer, as told by Jan Oxenberg (filmmaker and television writer).
Carol Downer was a women’s health activist who experienced a traumatic, illegal abortion before Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. I love this story because she worked tirelessly on health equity and healthcare access for women–something that is STILL an important topic today. She wasn’t afraid to discuss taboo topics like abortions, yeast infections, UTIs, and STIs. This story always makes me laugh because Jan discusses “The Great Yogurt Conspiracy.” When Carol’s health clinic was raided by police because she was “illegally” offering health advice to women–they took cups of yogurt (often used as treatment for yeast infections) out of the refrigerator as evidence of her wrongdoings.
Sojourner Truth, as told by Dee Harris Lawrence (Executive Producer/Showrunner for All Rise)
During my one woman crusade to learn about women's rights in elementary school, I also read a biography on Sojourner Truth called Ain’t I a Woman? This biography was impactful to me because it offered a different perspective on the role of Black women during the anti-slavery movement and the women’s rights movement. As we touched on in our blog post on Black Suffragettes, the right to vote for all women would not have been won without the work of Black activists. Sojourner Truth is one of many–but her speech about enduring the hardships, trauma, and back breaking labor of slavery, while also being told women were weaker than men–remains permanently etched in my mind. Dee Harris Lawrence also touches on the fact that Sojourner Truth had a strong Dutch accent but that her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech was recorded in a Southern dialect and may never have even included that famous phrase.
For these stories and more, check out Look What She Did’s website. Look What She Did is hosting a Women’s History Month Benefit event honoring Faye Wattleton, the youngest and longest serving president of Planned Parenthood, on Sunday, March 6th. Faye previously spoke about her mother for LWSD, check it out here! As we look to celebrate this important month, please consider donating to and attending an event that will both honor the work of Faye Wattleton–and celebrate the important contributions of women throughout history.
One story changed the way that I viewed myself and the world I lived in and inspired me to imagine more. How many other stories about impactful women are out there, just waiting to be listened to or read by other precocious nine-year-olds? Maybe they would create a world where paid family leave is the law and parents don’t have to choose between careers and starting families. Perhaps pay equity would be a reality and women would finally have full autonomy over their bodies and reproductive choice. Listening to stories about remarkable women who pushed the boundaries and demanded change is just one to celebrate Women’s History Month–who knows what world we can imagine together if we learn HERstory, one extraordinary woman at a time.