True Wonder Is What Women Have Achieved


March 05, 1992|By Alice Steinbach

She was one of the women we third-grade girls admired the most, this career woman from Boston named Diana Prince. She had it all: In addition to being powerful, independent and beautiful, Diana was also fair-minded, incorruptible and capable of winning out over the Bad Guys.

We dreamed of being like her.

And the fact that she had bulletproof bracelets and a Lasso of Truth to help her along in life didn't deter us from modeling ourselves after Diana.

Who, incidentally, also went by the name of Wonder Woman.

Back then it didn't occur to us to think it strange that one of our heroines -- girls still had heroines then, not heroes -- was a comic-strip character dressed in a strapless, star-spangled outfit. After all, there weren't too many women around in those days dressed in a judge's robe or a surgeon's mask and gown or any of the other outfits that confer authority and power on those who wear them. In those days, young girls took their heroines wherever they could find them.

Simone de Beauvoir, for instance, admitted she grew up admiring the independent Jo March of "Little Women." And Texas Gov. Ann Richards -- in a choice that makes me particularly happy -- recently cited as her childhood heroine none other than . . . Wonder Woman!

I bring all this up because March is Women's History Month -- which set me to wondering where heroines like Wonder Woman and Jo March fit into the "history" of women. Did young girls glom on to cartoon figures and fictional females like Ms. March and Ms. Woman because, in pre-women's movement times, history offered few female equivalents to the likes of a Winston Churchill or an Albert Einstein?

True, we had the occasional Eleanor Roosevelt or Margaret Mead to admire, but it is no exaggeration to say you could count such women on the fingers of one hand. In those days, women -- as anyone who reads current history knows -- were not only not encouraged to participate fully in the world, they were vigorously discouraged.

Indeed, achievement and a yearning for authority in the larger world were thought to be goals suitable for men only.

And just in case you assume this all happened long ago, here are two reminders of how even the most educated of men regarded women in the not-so-distant past:

"It would be preposterously naive to suggest that a B.A. can be made as attractive to girls as a marriage license," said Columbia University president Grayson Kirk in 1967.

"As much as women want to be good scientists and engineers, they want, first and foremost, to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers," wrote child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in 1965.

But if we go back to the books where the real "history" of women is written -- in their diaries and memoirs -- it becomes clear that women have always yearned for independence and self-discovery.

Such longings are evident in this passage from "A New England Girlhood," written in 1889 by Lucy Larcom: "In the older times it was seldom said to little girls, as it always has been said to boys, that they ought to have some definite plan, while they were children, what to be and do when they were grown up. There was usually but one path open before them, to become good wives and housekeepers."

Then the feminist Click! goes off and she concludes: "But girls, as well as boys, must often have been conscious of their own peculiar capabilities -- must have desired to cultivate and make use of their individual powers."

To their credit, women have always found ways to make use of those powers -- but not in the kinds of pursuits that land you in a history textbook.

In her book, "Anonymous Was A Woman," writer Mirra Bank attempts to "rescue women folk artists from their anonymity." Her study of the traditional American art produced by 19th century women -- mostly in quilts and needlework -- makes an enormous contribution to the retrieval of women's history.

But she points out that the history of the Anonymous Woman "is not exclusively a matter of discovering names or assigning dates." What we need to do instead, she suggests, "is to reconstruct the daily existence and inner lives of girls and women who could execute the most intricate quilt patterns without ever mastering the formal principles of geometry and evoke the most exotic imagery in thread or paint without ever traveling beyond their counties of birth."

Her book reminds us once again that most of the history of women has been lived outside of the scrutiny of historians. You will find no profiles in courage of such anonymous women in the textbooks but they remain, through their daily acts of valor and creativity, pioneering role models for us all.

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