Shining a light on American history’s unsung heroes

From Martha Washington to Betty Ford, the first ladies have often been overlooked in our nation's history textbooks.

By Sam Barnes

While taking a look at American history, many textbooks seemingly overlook the influential role that women have played in shaping the path of our country. Innovators, engineers, doctors, and countless leaders have yet to be given credit for their place in this country’s history. Most notably though, the stories of the first ladies have been unfairly omitted.

Many high school students have heard of Martha Washington. But few know of Abigail Adams, the wife of the second American president, John Adams. While she did not have access to formal education that men did in that era, she educated herself starting at an early age with the books in her father’s library.

Abigail was a fierce advocate for matters of gender equality, including the right to female suffrage and equal education. And according to the White House Archives, Abigail was her husband’s closest confidant in all matters, and her advice had the power to determine major decisions.

With the groundwork laid for women’s education, Sarah Polk came to the White House with a pen in hand. She was known for her prominent role in her husband’s public image, with her writing the bulk of his speeches and advising him on matters of the people. She was well respected by people from all walks of life, and her judgement was appreciated on almost all matters.

James Buchanan’s election marked a unique point in American history, for he was unmarried. Rather than his wife fill the role of First Lady, his orphaned niece whom he had raised from an early age stepped in. At social gatherings she carefully arranged seating to quell tensions in a country deeply divided before the Civil War. Yet in this dark moment, she brought a light and joy to the White House that was admired by all.

Decades later, Woodrow Wilson wed his second wife Edith Wilson in the White House. When he suffered a stroke later that year, she became the distating force of what would and wouldn’t be brought to her husband’s desk. With this position, she wielded extreme power, the extent of which is still unknown.

Grace Coolidge brought to the White House her kindness and prominent social presence. She began her career teaching at the Clarke School for the Deaf, and soon after she wed Calvin Coolidge. She did more than her part when it came to responsibilities inside and outside the presidency, being named as one of America’s 12 greatest living women in 1931.

Yet the most Grace Coolidge receives in modern day history books is at most a mention. All 47 of these extraordinary women have filled roles in which their lives are bared to the world for all to see, but almost all textbooks do not reflect that. For American history to be truly American, then all aspects of the American experience must be documented, including those of the hard working women that have made the United States into the nation that it is today.

Sam Barnes is a sophomore.

This is his first year as a Growl staff writer.


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