Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Actually, She Did That: The Civic Lab for Women's History Month

The team of folks here at my library who curate the Civic Lab were having a meeting a few weeks ago where we were discussing potential topics for future Civic Lab pop-ups. Sometimes we tie our pop-ups to formal programs on our calendar, sometimes to topics in the news, sometimes to installations in the library, and sometimes to specific days or months of import or conversation. We were brainstorming what topic to focus on for Women's History Month, and we had plenty to choose from--there's a lot going on right now affecting women, have you noticed? You might be surprised, then, to hear that the person who came up in conversation was Kanye.

Or maybe you're not too surprised, because he came up in the context of one particularly annoying and eye-roll-inducing line from Famous: "I made that bitch famous," said in reference to Taylor Swift. As if he, a man, made her, a huge pop star who is a woman, famous because he physically took the stage and microphone away from her while she was winning an award. Gross.

And so we had our topic for the Civic Lab for Women's History Month: women who have accomplished something, but who do not get their deserved credit (often it goes to a man or group of men), or they are better known for something irrelevant to their accomplishments.

We called it "Actually, She Did That"--taking the mansplainer's favorite opening word of "actually" and shedding light on some excellent women throughout history whom many do not know and whose accomplishments have been snatched from them.


The central activity in "Actually, She Did That" was a game of sorts. On a column constructed out of our multipurpose crates, we affixed large images of 11 different women who fit our criteria stated above. (As one of the mother/daughter participant pairs said, these 11 are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women not getting the credit due to them.) Each image included the woman's name and date of birth (as well as death, where relevant). On the table next to the column, we had 11 slips of paper. Each slip noted the accomplishment of one of these women, with a parenthetical about how or why she hasn't gotten credit for that accomplishment. The goal was to try to match the woman to her accomplishment, learning more about these 11 fantastic women along the way.

Our 11 featured women were:
  • Nellie Bly (1864-1922) - Bly was a brilliant, pioneering journalist, despite popular opinion that she couldn't be a good journalist because she was a woman. Bly was an early undercover investigative journalist, checking herself into a mental asylum and writing articles exposing the despicable treatment of (mostly female) patients in these facilities.
  • Selma Burke (1900-1995) - A sculptor, Burke was the artist behind the FDR profile that was used on the dime. Yet the (male) engraver typically gets credit for the design, rather than Burke.
  • Laverne Cox (1984- ) - Cox is the first transgender actress to be nominated for an Emmy in an acting category. Yet despite her talent and prowess as an actress, much media coverage of Cox returns to questions about her gender assigned at birth--regardless of its lack of relevance to her career.
  • Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) - Franklin's research led to her discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. Her male lab partner stole her findings and gave them to Crick and Watson, who went on to win the Nobel Prize for DNA discoveries.
  • Katherine Johnson (1918- ) - One of NASA's "human computers" whose supreme math skills allowed early astronauts to safely start to explore space, Johnson and her colleagues have only recently started to get recognition due to the book and film Hidden Figures.
  • Regina Jonas (1902-1944) - The first female rabbi, Jonas was refused ordination for years despite having gone through the same training as her male colleagues. She was finally ordained before being sent to a concentration camp. She died in Auschwitz.
  • Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000) - Lamarr was a brilliant inventor, developing spread spectrum communication and frequency hopping technology which are now the basis for cell phones and wi-fi. Yet she is often known only for being a beautiful actress.
  • Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) - She wrote the first computer program, although her male friend Charles Babbage is usually credited as the first computer programmer. Lovelace is usually first credited as daughter of Lord Byron. So not only does she not get credit for what she did, but she's defined in relation to her male relative.
  • Wilma Mankiller (1945-2010) - Mankiller was the first female chief of the Cherokee Nation. Many American history texts ignore her leadership and maintain there has never been a female head of state in the U.S.
  • Arati Prabhakar (1959- ) - Prabhakar was the head of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, from 2012 until January of this year. Research and developments under her watch have included huge strides in biomedical technology like prosthetics. Credit is typically given to the presidential administration at the time of the invention.
  • Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) - Called the "First Lady of Physics," Wu worked on the Manhattan Project. Her work in nuclear physics won a Nobel Prize for her male colleagues, but she was not recognized. Even though the winning experiment was called the "Wu Experiment."

We had some really wonderful conversations with patrons as they engaged in this activity. Many recognized a few names or pictures, but couldn't place their finger on where they'd seen or heard of these women before. We share biographical facts with participants, many of them shaking their heads in frustration at just how common this type of credit-stealing is. One teen girl, participating with a friend, remarked after hearing the stories of several of the women, "Why do they keep giving away credit?" We talked about how it wasn't a question of these accomplished women giving away credit, but rather them having credit taken from them or given to someone else. These teens got mad. They demand better, for the world to see them and their friends and other women. As it should be.

Alongside this activity of matching women to their accomplishments, we also had a few other elements available for Civic Lab participants. We had a number of great titles on offer for folks interested in learning about more women and their accomplishments, including:
  • 50 Unbelievable Women and Their Fascinating (And True!) Stories by Saundra Mitchell, illustrated by Cara Petrus
  • Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World by Ann Shen
  • The Book of Heroines: Tales of History's Gutsiest Gals by Stephanie Warren Drimmer
  • Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color by Chandler O'Leary & Jessica Spring
  • Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
  • Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs, illustrated by Sophia Foster-Dimino

We also put together a handout with resources for hearing more women's stories through an email newsletter, podcasts, and online videos. (See the handout here.)

The handout also includes three questions to get folks considering the stories of women in their own lives, as well as how they can make space to hear and share the stories of women:
  1. What have women in your life accomplished? Have they gotten credit for these accomplishments?
  2. What would you say to them in acknowledgement of what they have accomplished?
  3. How can you help to share the stories of women and their work?

We intentionally posed that first question on one of our crates, and we provided sticky notes and pencils for participants to weigh in. During the two hours a coworker and I facilitated "Actually, She Did That," however, no one wrote a response to the question. We don't think it was from lack of interest, but rather from the greater appeal of learning about the women whose images were front and center in the installation. We're hopeful that the public question, as well as the handout, provided fodder for reflecting on the women in participants' lives.

Monday was appearance number one for "Actually, She Did That." We'll be popping up again this Friday, and we're eager to see what types of interactions are prompted this time around. From there, we want to think about how to continue this idea of making clear space for women and women's stories beyond just Women's History Month.

2 comments:

  1. I love, love, love this! I am interested to see what kind of responses and feedback you continued to receive during subsequent appearances!

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  2. More!! More posts! I want to know what you are doing!

    ReplyDelete