History Professor Says New Series Fixes Image of Women in U.S. History

famous women in history are complemented by unsung heroines

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Some women who defined the United States have gone unrecognized. Catharine Beecher and Mary Church Terrell are far less known than Martha Washington and Sacagawea. Dr. Allison Lange wants to change that.

Dr. Allison Lange
Historian Dr. Allison K. Lange explores the stories and images of astonishing women in U.S. history. Photo by Wondrium

It’s no surprise that what we learn from history isn’t always the full picture. Sometimes the gaps come from bias on the educators’ parts; other times the material has to be cut to be more digestible—like making an 800-page novel into a two-hour movie. Unfortunately, the information that gets omitted can be important. Wondrium’s new series 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920 fills in many of those holes.

Dr. Allison Lange, Associate Professor of History at Wentworth Institute of Technology, focuses on the astonishing women who found a way to break away from the constrictive social and familial norms of their day. Her series is full of fascinating stories about a dozen famous and overlooked women in American history and their contributions to society and to the development of the United States.

Setting the Record Straight

History, in general, is an important subject to Dr. Lange, but in 12 Women Who Shaped America, she gets to spend time rounding out the image of women in U.S. history.

“It’s often stories that we haven’t learned before,” she said. “A lot of the historical content that we come into contact with regularly—documentaries, museum exhibitions, the kind of popular history books often overlook a lot of the figures that this series covers. Personally, I find it really fascinating because these women led such interesting and unusual lives, in constraints that most of us cannot imagine today, and [they] did really extraordinary things; so, that I find particularly compelling.”

Among Dr. Lange’s favorite historical figures in the series is Sojourner Truth. Truth is one of the first women in the United States to shape her own public image and the way that people thought of her. In a separate interview, content developer Rahima Ullah also cited this as an eye-opening anecdote. Dr. Lange said that we may not think of things like that in this day and age with social media, since we take such things for granted, but Truth owned her public image.

“She did [that] to advance her social causes, anti-slavery, civil rights, and women’s rights, and to kind of show that as a woman, as a Black woman, she was equal to other humans—white men and women, as well as other people in American society,” Dr. Lange said.

Suffragist City

Continuing on the subject of how women portrayed themselves to the public, Dr. Lange’s first book was about the way suffragists used images to advance women’s voting rights. Often, male cartoonists would portray suffragists as mannish, ugly, domineering, and unpleasant in order to make their causes seem unappealing to men in power. Women had no other choice but to take control of their own images.

“One of the things that really brought me to this topic and my interest in images and social movements are the very famous photographs of suffragists picketing the White House in 1917 during World War I,” Dr. Lange said. “I found those really compelling; they’re really different from any other images of women participating in social movements. There’s nothing like that before 1917, really.”

She said that one of her goals in 12 Women Who Shaped America is to provide a new understanding and a far more complex version of American history than many of us were given in school—one with a greater variety of characters than are traditionally offered.

“George Washington may never have become president if he had not married Martha Washington and gotten control of her estate in the way that he did, which really advanced his standing in his community,” Dr. Lange said.

12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920 is now available to stream on Wondrium.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily