Jennifer Mazi — Lessons in feminism

03/25/2014 3:58 PM

04/08/2014 11:54 PM

Thank you, Cokie Roberts: my 8-year-old is now a feminist.

This is what happened: Before I left for errands the other night, I handed Sis a new, nonfiction picture book for her book report, “Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies.” Written by longtime NPR contributor Cokie Roberts, this 40-page account shows young readers how Revolutionary War-era women like Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison did more than pour tea and decorate the White House. They also ran businesses, watered cannons, inspired armies.

(I have a mad reverence for nonfiction picture books, a newish subgenre of children’s literature that squishes huge historical ideas, people and events into kid-sized bits of information. I love these books for two reasons: One, there are a lot of pictures. Two, I read them with my kiddos and learn things I probably should have learned years ago.)

I came home to find an ode to Girl Power on the kitchen table.

“Founding Fathers have been talked about most,” it began. “When we hear about presidents’ names, there are no girls [heart-shaped dot over the “i”]. What we hear from history, it seems that women and girls never walked the earth…Well guess what!? GIRLS ARE ALIVE TOO! [Heart-shaped dots under the question mark and exclamation points].” After a few lines about Martha Washington’s heroic rallying of troops during the Revolutionary War came this gem: “The book taught me that men don’t rule the world, you know.”

Sis’s firecracking observations covered more than seldom-heard stories of women making historically unheralded contributions to the greater good. They also showed her surprise with the deep-rooted structural sexism that has plagued humanity since our beginning, changing how she sees the world she fell in love with during her earliest years.

I sent the paper to Roberts, who laughed for a good six seconds about Sis’s newfound political passion and love-infused punctuation. She then said, as I had hoped, that Sis isn’t the only girl reacting to her book with fiesty indignance.

“I always begin my school visits by asking kids if anything is missing from all those pictures in the history books,” Roberts said. “Some little girl eventually raises her hand and says ‘Where are the women? There are no women in those pictures!’ They really do get that women are left out and they don’t like it.”

Since I didn’t have the courage to ask Roberts if she would adopt us so that Sis and I could learn at her feet, and since the parenting books on my shelf cover everything except how to talk to your child about the global history of gender inequality, I also tracked down Claire Rudolf Murphy, a passionate women’s rights advocate dedicated to reframing history to show that “women and girls were there, too,” with books like “Marching With Aunt Susan: Susan B. Anthony and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage.”

“Too often history is told through the voices of men because for centuries they told the stories,” Murphy said. “Roberts’ book really resonated with Sis because she is now old enough to see that women around her are making a difference and always have.”

During her lectures for Hamline University’s graduate program in writing for children and young adults, Murphy teaches that history becomes relevant to young readers when they can see themselves in it. In the past, girls may have had trouble seeing themselves in the great story of America.

“Not any more,” Murphy added. “That’s why we are seeing such a wealth of books on women and girls coming out,” nonfiction picture books like “What To Do About Alice: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove her Father Teddy Crazy!” by Barbara Kerley, “Nurse, Soldier, Spy: The Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero” by Marissa Moss and “Stand Straight, Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant” by Missouri native Kate Klise.

Thanks to the history detectives behind such books, Sis’s generation won’t have to relearn history the way their parents and grandparents must if we are to see beyond images of men in white wigs and tights. These kiddos will also have ample time to consider their feelings on big issues, years before many of us ever did. (Gender issues never fully hit my radar until a women’s studies class in college inspired me to deliver a speech dressed up as a 1950s housewife. Pretty sure I offended all the people in class with stay-at-home moms, not knowing one day I would be one, too.)

Sis and I haven’t had the discussion that comes after reading “Founding Mothers: Remembering the Ladies,” the one where I start with honest but gentle words to explain why even Roberts’ authorship is relevant to the story of women. Somehow, I’ll show her that gender inequality still exists in big ways, that many girls risk their lives to access education, are not allowed by their societies to express opinions, are not valued in their infancy because of their gender. How, even in her own country, in her own city, some may think she is less because she is a girl.

There will be plenty of time for those conversations, and plenty of books to help me find the words. Hopefully, they will have lots of pictures for us to look at, breaks between the questions and answers that come next.

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