Women’s History Month, like all the other months designated for special cultural observances, always provides an opportunity for us to reflect on the ideals that are most important to us.
In 2015 the United States Treasury announced that the portrait of Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, on the $10 bill would be replaced by the image of an American woman – starting in 2020. There were online votes in which interested parties were asked to select from among a list of top contenders. However, the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” renewed appreciation for Mr. Hamilton, and it was decided to let the $10 bill alone. The woman’s portrait would instead go on the $20 bill.
We have learned that the woman will be Harriet Tubman.
We affectionately call Harriet Tubman “Black Moses” because her bravery in various capacities – surprising for a woman – rescued hundreds of enslaved people. Many supporters are pleased about this because Tubman’s image will replace that of America’s 7th President, Andrew Jackson, who got rich as a slave owner and was instrumental in robbing various Native American tribes of their land.
MY interest in Women’s History Month has always been very broad-based. Yay for Harriet Tubman, but I love the way the National Women’s History Project singles out new women each year for recognition and acknowledgement.
Like Blacks, women have contributed mightily to this planet, in ways that have frequently gone unrecognized (think “Hidden Figures“). I believe mine is the first American generation to imagine that women could actually gain equality with men – and I’ve watched that struggle progress for the 50 years since I was old enough to start paying attention.
I’ve chosen to highlight the women shown in the photo at the top of this post as my own personal icons for this year: the astonishing author and Pulitzer Prize Winner Toni Morrison, Africa’s first female president – former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Susan Burton, a former prison convict who now helps others re-enter society.
Toni Morrison has long been my favorite American author, since The Bluest Eye and Tar Baby – and, of course, Beloved, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer. She stands out for her richly lyrical style, her interweaving of the spiritual with the realistic, her characters’ authentic voices in the narrative (what we West Indians call “nation language”), and her truly epic stories – most of which place women squarely at the center.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took on an amazingly difficult task of bringing Liberia out of a long and unproductive civil war, and then of keeping the peace. She also stepped down at the end of her term – providing for an orderly transition of government – a move most African leaders can’t seem to get right!!! While she’s taken a lot of criticism – heck, she’s a woman so we’re used to that – there is no denying what she has accomplished. And, notably, it was the direct, broad-based political activism of Liberia’s women who put her there!
Susan Burton, founder of “A New Way of Life,” a California-based nonprofit which helps women and men re-enter society after incarceration, is among the 2018 National Women’s History Project honorees – and is on my personal list of women to appreciate this year. As Black Americans turn our focus toward criminal justice reform as a key political issue – mass incarceration IS the new Jim Crow – this kind of work is needed to save people’s lives and move us forward together.
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I can’t resist this mention of Hidden Figures – the beautiful 2016 book by Margot Lee Shetterly about the women mathematicians who helped America win the space race; a book which makes the entire case for Women’s History Month. It’s a must-read, even if you’ve seen the movie!