It must’ve been my mother who introduced me to the biography section of the children’s library, because I remember her reading me bios of Helen Keller and St. Patrick when I was 5 or 6 (I remember the Patrick biography especially because it contained an anecdote about a monk who tried to stay up praying for three days straight and died from lack of sleep. Cue weeks of me lying in bed in terror, squeezing my eyes shut and willing sleep to come LEST I DIE).
Soon I was perusing the biography stacks on my own, which were supplied mainly from a series called “Childhood of Famous Americans.” The idea behind the series, which originated in the 1940s or ’50s (Woodrow Wilson is in the category “Recent Times”), is simple, brilliant, and more than a little shady in its scholarly practices: get kids to read about famous Americans by making up 80% of the childhood events and presenting it as fact. No matter. I loved them, and by the time I was old enough to question the texts (how, exactly, do we have all these conversations of 8 year old Martha Washington preserved verbatim?), I had moved onto historical fiction that didn’t pretend to be otherwise (e.g. the Dear America faux-diary series).
One rigid stipulation guided my choices: I refused to read about boys.
I accidentally picked up the book on Cecil B. DeMille because I thought “Cecil” was a girl’s name. I threw it down in disgust once I realized I was reading about a boy. There was a repeat performance with Babe Ruth. And J.C. Penney. And . . .]
This is curious to me because I didn’t hate boys, not at all. In fact, thinking back on it, my best friend in elementary school was a boy who lived down the street. I never felt at home with the sporty girls or tomboys, but I also didn’t get my friends who spent their time braiding hair and playing with their mothers’ lipstick. So instead I played with my neighbor Matt, and we built forts in the woods and played house and rode bikes. And it was great.
I had no such tolerance of males when it came to my biographies, however. Maybe it was because I was already picking up on the fact that history has been overwhelmingly shaped by the patriarchy. More likely, I was just looking for models of what it meant to be a woman when I didn’t resonate with the roles set up for me.
And I found them. Jane Addams, Narcissa Whitman, Phyllis Wheatley, Dorothea Dix , Maria Mitchell, Martha Washington, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Babe Didrickson, Elizabeth Blackwell, Dolly Madison, Nancy Hanks, Jessie Fremont, Ethel Barrymore, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Mapes Dodge, Julia Ward Howe–those are just the women I remember off the top of my head. When I looked at the list in the front of my Jane Addams book, I remembered reading about Clara Barton, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Amelia Earhart, Sacagawea, Mary Todd Lincoln, Louisa May Alcott, and Juliet Lowe (founder of the Girl Scouts).
I read them over, and over, and over.
So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I remember what each person was known for, even the obscure ones: Dix was active in reform of women’s prisons, Dodge wrote a popular children’s book, Fremont was a Western trailblazer alongside her husband John, Wiggin wrote “America the Beautiful,” Didrickson was a golfer, and Lowe founded the Girl Scouts.
I collect them now (they’re the first thing I look for in used bookstores), but they’re hard to find. The series aren’t perfect, not by any means; they feature very few people of color (I found three), often feature a not-so-subtle moralizing tone, and need I point you back to the Jane Addams subtitle? But I love them still because they helped me to dream, because they tried to make larger-than-life characters relatable, because they showed me you don’t have to wait until you grow up to live your life with a sense of purpose and maybe even destiny.
Even if you’re a girl.