I grew up with two sisters, no brothers, and tons of Barbies. My heroes were Jem and She-Ra. My mother and grandmothers are best described as fierce, loyal, and extremely patient, and they are my daily inspirations. In the pictures above, that’s me throwing a fit and my mother, grandmother, and one of my sisters above.
During Women’s History Month, I love to remind my students that well-behaved women rarely make history. As a history teacher, I am lucky to share stories of many women that make students think about their own place in this big world. In 7th grade, we cover the social reformer Jane Addams, arrest of Susan B. Anthony, Rosie the Riveters, and Rosa Parks’s determination. None of these women played by the rules, and their tenacity resonates with generation after generation. In honor of Women’s History Month, I would like to showcase two women who not only demonstrate the power of females, but also RVA’s history.
Elizabeth Van Lew was a Southern socialite with a Northern education. Perhaps that Northern education inspired or nurtured her abolitionist values. As much as she loved Richmond, she opposed secession and supported the Union by bringing food and medical supplies to prisoners at Libby Prison. Van Lew used her connections and access to Libby Prison to build a spy network for the Union. She challenged all ideas about womanhood at the time–the common view being that women were too uneducated and feeble to embark on such daring adventures. Van Lew was able to send hidden messages to Ulysses S. Grant that impacted his ability to take Petersburg and Richmond and end the Civil War. In return for her help, Elizabeth Van Lew was named postmaster of Richmond by Grant, but she lost her personal fortune and lived as a social outcast after Reconstruction. She sacrificed her own wellbeing to support basic human rights.
Another Richmond trailblazer was Maggie L. Walker, and I adore this woman! She was the daughter of a slave (who worked as a cook in the Van Lew household) and dedicated her life to providing economic and educational opportunities for African Americans and women. When Southern culture was dominated by Jim Crow, Walker was the first African American women to charter a bank in the U.S., the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. When the stock market crashed and banks failed during the Great Depression, Walker kept her bank alive by merging with two other banks to continue to serve African Americans. She endured tragedy with the death of an infant son and husband, as well as health complications due to diabetes, but those did not stop her dedication to the community. Today, her family home in Jackson Ward is a National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service.
When he established National Women’s History Week, Jimmy Carter said, “Understanding the true history of our country will help us to comprehend the need for full equality under the law for all our people.” How true that feeling still rings true for many people across this country.
Women’s History Month is an example of how far we’ve come, and how far is yet to go to break that glass ceiling.