The Ladies of History

Most of the boys I knew growing up loved history class. A lot of them enjoyed learning about different wars and the men who fought them. I found some of it interesting, more so than most of the girls I knew ─ being a tomboy ─ but something still didn’t capture my full attention.

I grew bored of memorizing battle dates and the names of numerous generals. That didn’t teach me anything about what those people had lived through. There was no direct connect, no link that gave me the empathy I craved for the individuals who went through the historic events listed before me. The past sat on a piece of paper, as dull and lifeless as the ink that coated it. 

Reading classic works of fiction provided more depth and light to the lives of the people who actually lived and worked during different time periods than any text book or documentary.  The hidden historical details displayed in these stories became the doorway for me. My brain lit up to the information because I required a different, more feminine approach to learning.

In school the usual literary greats were pushed upon me: Hemmingway, Shakespeare, Salinger… Despite their writing skills, something was lacking. I found nothing in those classic stories that revealed anything about ME or MY life. I knew something was missing, so I sought out better works on my own.

In middle school I read, A Time of Angels, by Karen Hesse. This book followed a Jewish girl whose parents were caught fighting the Bolsheviks in Russia during WWI. She was being raised by family members in the U.S. and lived through the Spanish flu epidemic. The story did have some spiritual elements, but what resonated with me was how her perspective of war changed as she lived through the era.

She was taken in by a German man who immigrated before the war. Her own prejudices against him melted away as he offered kindness and safety in a time of uncertainty. Within the pages of this lesser known fictional tale the main character dares to wonder if mothers in Germany are terrified of the American monsters who are killing their children. That astounded me. Accepting and realizing the other side to a popular perspective opened my eyes to the humanity that resides in everyone no matter where they come from or what they go through.

I found more authors with broader writing concepts as I entered high school and college. Charlotte Bronte, L.M. Montgomery, and Louisa May Alcott spoke to me. They displayed a more realistic view of how people in the west once lived. Women had different but equal roles in their stories.

The Anne of Green Gables Series began with a simple country life and ended with more World War sentiment. In these books the invention of the telephone is presented as it was to people living in that time. The people left behind to care for their country while able bodied men went to defend their ideals were the main focus and their courage and bravery finally allowed me to find whole-hearted understanding.

Having that connection between myself and these characters did more to expand my appreciation and knowledge of the societies our lives sprang from. It baffled me that these talented authors were kept out of public education, being that their books displayed women as we know ourselves to be instead of the caricatures of ourselves that bitter male authors tend to lead with. I grew thankful for my local library because it gifted me the resources I needed where the education system failed.

Another great learning tool presented itself to me in college. In taking art history classes, I found more layered details of the past that engaged my interests. It was unlikely that I would ever go to war, but painting, sculpting, and architecture were elements of life one could explore everywhere.

The stories behind particular pieces ingrained themselves into my memory. Although many great painters and sculptors were men, a number of the subjects that they drew inspiration from were women, giving females a sense of participation. From ethereal paintings of Da Vinci to the more realistic portraits of mothers with their children, I devoured my textbook and took the liberty of enjoying the chapters that my particular course did not have time to cover.

Later, when I became a mother, I found myself engaged with a daughter who loved all things correlated to girlhood. I thrust myself into a new world of teaching because I didn’t wish for her to be hindered by the current education system’s lack of focus on her role as a being.

My daughter became obsessed with ballet and in reading about the timeline of this art form I grew to appreciate not just the dancing, but its ties to civilizations past. It interested me more because women held a stronger role in that aspect of history. Their achievements in ballet were an integral part of the evolution of society in France, and later, Germany, England, Russia, and eventually world-wide.

The links between ballet and the history of the countries that it graced over centuries not only gave me the ability to answer my daughter’s questions about what life was like for people hundreds of years ago, they also highlighted important events and made them more memorable. I found a new understanding of how unimaginably changed every culture became during and after the First World War.

Reading of more modern players like Margot Fonteyn, George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov all the way to Misty Copeland (who became the first African American principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theater) perfectly displayed how the world and its art forms changed throughout history. It laid out a simple timeline with plenty of detailed achievements and signs of the times each era portrayed.

These direct correlations brought the past to life. They are what can and should be taught when working to engage all students.

Teaching the whole of history is impossible, but allowing young minds to have a better understanding of the past by offering them more tangible connections is not. Art in all its forms always had the ability to capture the lives of individuals and preserve them for future generations. Literature and its ability to embody the essence of paintings and even dancers provide a window to the past that displays a greater understanding of how daily life was. Those are the links that give true knowledge of actual events.

2 thoughts on “The Ladies of History

  1. SpookyMrsGreen says:

    I agree! The parts of History I enjoyed learning about at school were the Victorians and a project we did on the Home Front from the world wars. I had no interest in learning names of soldiers, I wanted to know about the families at home and what they did, how they lived. I am now reading Anne of Green Gables with my daughters (aged 10 and 7), and we enjoy discussing how attitudes have changed over the years. I learned a lot about our Tudor history from reading books by Philippa Gregory that are fictional but based on true events, and read from the female perspective.

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