Yesterday my daughter Amelia went on a field trip with her third grade class to see a play about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We talked a bit about the play and what her thoughts were, and one of the first things she said was, “Mom, there were five actors. Four were men and then there was one woman to play all the women. Just one woman.”
Now, you never really know how accurate information is coming from a nine year old, especially since she was able to give me great detail on the bus ride shenanigans but very little details about the play. But she did say that the male actors all stayed in character while the sole female actor had to flip flop between female roles. I asked her what she thought about there being just one woman to which she replied, “It just seems like they forgot that women were a part of all that history, too. There was just one woman for ALL those women. It didn’t feel right.”
In my head I started going through the names and faces of the women and girls from the Civil Rights Movement: Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mildred Loving, Daisy Bates, Myrlie Evers Williams, Septima Poinsette Clark and Dorothy Height…..
Oh the irony of Dorothy Height, well-known in her time as a great orator and a key organizer of the 1963 March On Washington, yet not allowed by her male counterparts to speak that day.
They didn’t allow any women to speak that day. And that wasn’t the first time.
No wonder the women in the play are interchangeable.
No wonder my daughter found the play to be boring.
Each of these women above may have been striving for the same goal and working together, but each woman was unique and different from the next. A sharecropper. A journalist. A mother of four who holds a degree in voice and violin from the New England Conservatory of Music. A prize-winning orator.
I asked my daughter to tell me more, specifically which women did the female actor portray and how did it make Amelia feel when the female actor would switch roles.
“First she was Rosa Parks, who had a pretty big job with the Civil Rights parades if I recall. Then they made her flip to his WIFE. And I’m all, ‘Uh no, that’s Rosa Parks, you just don’t mess with that business’. The men were just standing there like mountains because they. are. men. so that’s who they get to be forever like they’re sooooooo important. But the women were all flip flopping, like any woman could fill that role as long as it was a girl. It felt like the women were cut in half. And I was sitting in my chair squeaking my boots on the floor because at this point I’m angry, right? I’m sitting in my chair and I KNOW that Coretta Scott King did a lot of work herself to help the brown skin people. And I’m thinking, “Oh Coretta be like – jokers please, you need to hire more actors!'”
Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
My nine year old is aware of when her gender is being left out, be it advertising, media characters and stories, politics, sports, or plays about the journey for equality.
And so I teach her, when history attempts to write us out we are to make sure we write ourselves right back in.
The book in the center, “Lives of Extraordinary Women”, was given to my daughter for her birthday by my mother. It is what women have done for each other for centuries, we share and retell our stories to make sure our contributions that shaped the world are not forgotten nor credited to our brothers.
It is what we do so that when our little girls go to a play they question why there is only one woman on stage for the telling of a movement that had men as its stars but was carried forward on the backs of its women.
List of books as they appear in photo:
Who Was books includes biographies on Maria Tallchief, Jane Goodall, Sacagawea, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, and more….
No Small Courage: A History of Women in the United States by Nancy F. Cott
Anne Frank In The World compiled by the Anne Frank House
Scholastic Encyclopedia of Women in the United States by Sheila Keenan
America’s Daughters: 400 Years of American Women by Judith Head
Lives of Extraordinary Women: Rulers, Rebels (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt
I Am books include biographies on Cleopatra, Hellen Keller, Harriet Tubman, and Sacagawea
FlyGirl by Sherri Smith
Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel
American Women: Their Lives In Their Words by Doreen Rappaport
Demeter’s Choice: A Portrait of My Grandmother as a Young Woman by Mary Tonetti Dorra
Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.