In High Heels and Backward: Historian Offers Insights into Why Women’s History Matters

Wednesday, February 25 2009

Feb. 25, 2009

Note to Media: March is Women's History Month.

Written by Donna Emert

MOSCOW, Idaho – American history traditionally tells only his story – the male, white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant story. Acknowledging and understanding the role of women helps us grasp a truer picture of how our country has been shaped and the choreography of the sexes that makes it work today.

“There’s that wonderful quote about how Fred Astaire was a great dancer, but Ginger Rogers did everything he did, only backward and in high heels,” said Professor Ian Chambers, who teaches Women in American History courses at the University of Idaho. “America is not and never has been operated solely by white men. To deny women’s role is to deny the history of America.”

American women’s history is remarkably racially inclusive: Pocahontas, of the Powhatan tribe, and Sacagawea, a Shoshone, are among the most well known Native American historical figures of either gender. We also are vaguely aware of the impact of Abigail Adams, a frequent and learned adviser to President John Quincy Adams, early women’s rights advocate, and the first president’s wife to be facetiously dubbed “Mrs. President.”

Ex-slave Harriet Tubman is familiar as one of the most successful conductors of the Underground Railroad, having led 300 slaves to freedom. The $40,000 reward for her capture serves as one measure of her profound impact. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for significantly expanding the role of women in politics, and Rosa Parks’ quiet, steadfast refusal to give up her bus seat is recognized as a hammer blow to oppression, one that still reverberates.

Americans may be less aware of the impact of women like Elizabeth Caddy Stanton, who wrote the “Declaration of Sentiment,” a document initiating the first organized woman's rights and woman's suffrage movements in the U.S.; and civil rights leader Susan B. Anthony, who was among the almost 100 women and men who signed that document. Anthony went on to found the National Women’s Suffrage Association and lead the suffrage movement. And we remember Sojourner Truth, an American slave woman who extemporaneously delivered her powerful plea for racial and gender equality, and irrefutable statement of self worth, “Aint I a Woman,” at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851.

Chambers’ history course also introduces students to less celebrated women who shaped the nation and its consciousness, like Donaldina Cameron, a missionary who helped get young Chinese girls out of prostitution in late 19th and early 20th Century America. Many of those children and young girls were sold into sexual slavery, a thriving industry that still exploits children of both genders around the world.

Cameron’s personal story also sheds light on the underbelly of the celebrated gold rush era, when almost every mining town featured a “line,” or row of one-room shacks that housed prostitutes to service miners.

Acknowledging women’s experience and telling their stories also helps dismantle oppressive stereotypes: Cameron began her crusade against prostitution and sexual slavery when she was just 25. “She was a fiery woman who helped break down the doors of brothels. She was not the timid little elf of Victorian stereotypes,” noted Chambers.

That same moxy is evident in the unsung revolutionary war hero Deborah Sampson Gannett, who donned a disguise to fight for her country’s freedom. “Her family came to America on the Mayflower. Her mother was a great granddaughter of William Bradford, first governor of the Plymouth Colony, so she was a descendent of an early founder, fighting in disguise for the revolution because she was in the position of a second-class citizen,” said Chambers. Gannett’s heroics eventually were acknowledged when she was awarded a pension for her role as a soldier.

Recently, American historians are taking a more inclusive look at the past. That inclusiveness moves us closer to the truth of the American experience, Chambers suggested. “When we look, for example, at a slave woman who risked her life to bring others to freedom, we realize that women were just as important and just as powerful in dictating the way America grew as men.”

For more information on women in American history and their impact, contact Chambers at or (208) 885-5777. For more information on Women’s History Month events at University of Idaho, please visit,
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About the University of Idaho
Founded in 1889, the University of Idaho is the state’s flagship higher-education institution and its principal graduate education and research university, bringing insight and innovation to the state, the nation and the world. University researchers attract nearly $100 million in research grants and contracts each year; the University of Idaho is the only institution in the state to earn the prestigious Carnegie Foundation ranking for high research activity. The university’s student population includes first-generation college students and ethnically diverse scholars. Offering more than 150 degree options in 10 colleges, the university combines the strengths of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. For information, visit

Media Contact: Brandi Hayes, University Communications, (208) 885-7251,

About the University of Idaho
The University of Idaho helps students to succeed and become leaders. Its land-grant mission furthers innovative scholarly and creative research to grow Idaho's economy and serve a statewide community. From its main campus in Moscow, Idaho, to 70 research and academic locations statewide, U-Idaho emphasizes real-world application as part of its student experience. U-Idaho combines the strength of a large university with the intimacy of small learning communities. It is home to the Vandals. For information, visit