Writing the Unknowns Back into History

March is Women’s History Month. As longtime readers of this blog know, women’s history is my jam, so I felt like I couldn’t let this month’s post go by without talking about it. But I want to come at it from a slightly different angle than I have before. I apologize right now if this post sounds self-serving but this is my soapbox as of late.

I’ve set myself up on a hard path as an author because I write about people no one has ever heard of. People are naturally leery of what they don’t know or understand and thus less likely to take a chance on a book whose subject they don’t already recognize. And that can be a depressing prospect when you’re trying to write a book while balancing everything else in life. However, I am committed to sticking to my mission of shedding light on the stories of unknown women.

As we are all aware, history has been written, by and large, by white men. And it has been reduced to a handful of “marquee names,” leaving out even the influence of many important white men, not to mention women and people of color. That is a tremendous loss for us and for what we believe to be true about our nation. Yes, George Washington, Abe Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Tubman are important. But much like Hollywood and its never-ending love of sequels and reboots, if we don’t contribute something new to history (or in my case historical fiction), we won’t ever learn anything new, just keep hashing the same old points over and over. Without a variety of perspectives in our history, we are looking back on a false, or at best incomplete, record.

History is anything but homogeneous, so our books about it should reflect diversity. Where are the stories of the women who supported the great men we read so much about? Where are the overlooked and uncredited women? (Hidden Figures was a great start, but there are so many more.) What about the LGBTQIA women who risked their lives by being who they were in an intolerant nation? Where are the stories of the strong women who survived natural disasters, poor harvests and plague (1918 Spanish Flu, anyone?) to go on to either do great things or just lead quiet lives? I’ve learned through my research that there are so many amazing stories that we don’t learn about in school and readers deserve the chance to know about them, too.

Every now and then an untold story breaks out. As Hamilton has shown us, there were other key men fighting for America’s independence and shaping the new nation, just as there were other people fighting for abolition, women’s suffrage and conducting the Underground Railroad. It is wonderful that we have our idols to look up to, but we shouldn’t limit our learning to just their stories. When that happens, we miss out on the rich tapestry that made our history happen. Just as it hasn’t been one person or even a council of people who have helped us get to what I hope is the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, not a single person made any other event in history happen. Thousands of people, many of them women and people of color, contributed to abolition. But we only remember the loudest handful of voices. What about everyone who supported those four or five icons or those whose stories are tread over completely in favor of the well-known names?

I believe in widening our history, not narrowing it down. I want everyone to know about the 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin, who refused to move to the back of the bus, months before Rosa Parks got the glory for doing the exact same thing. I want people to be riveted by the story of Ida Tarbell, the journalist who created modern investigative journalism in the early 1900s with an expose on Standard Oil, even though Julius Chambers and Nellie Bly are often credited with that feat. (I love me some Nellie Bly, don’t get me wrong, but her methods were different than Ida’s, whose are much closer to the ones still used today.) And I want people to read the stories of women of color–Black, Asian, Native American– and the spouses (gay and straight) who contributed to the women’s suffrage movement. Those stories alone would go a long way toward giving us a more complete picture of our history, of who we can and should admire and what we can do in our own lives to change the course of history.

But it is difficult to make people change. It’s easier and less risk to reach for a book about a person or from an author you already know and love. I do it just as much as the next reader. As an author, the only thing I can tell myself is to just keep going. Flood the market with as many books about unknowns as I can. And should that mean I will have to keep self-publishing and accept that I won’t ever be rich from my writing, so be it. But I can also hope that, not unlike Hamilton, one of my unknowns will take off and change everything.