Comment: How Instagram and History Lessons lead to Influential Women

Comment: How Instagram and History Lessons lead to Influential Women

How hard is it to remember a high-school history lesson? Jade French writes about one that springs to mind every time she finds out about inspirational and influential women she didn't know about before.

I vividly remember a certain history lesson. Our teacher came in and handed out pieces of paper with headings: Literature, art, history, sport… and asked us to write down 5 people we associated with each field in each subject. Shakespeare, Henry VII, David Beckham, Andy Warhol, Da Vinci, Hitler, Wayne Rooney… the names came thick and fast – a hotchpotch of white men and unrelated names sat next to each other. She asked: how many of these names are men? The answer – pretty much all of them. She passed out new pieces of paper and told us to write down only women in each field this time. The task became trickier. Florence Nightengale and Rosa Parks made the history list, but as for writers and artists? It became harder. And contemporary female historical figures? Even tougher. The teacher took all our paper in, shook her head, and began to rattle off names of famous women from Boadicea to Serena Williams via Ada Lovelace. It was an eye-opening lesson for a 13-year-old – a touchpoint introduction to who writes our history and how it’s been tampered with, as well as realising it's really true – you can't be what you can't see. How sad it is that the name Wayne Rooney springs to mind quicker than Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa (pictured below).

I’m remembering this because I’ve just come across Illustrated Women in History, an Instagram account and Etsy shop, that’s particularly eye-opening. Since that history lesson all those years ago, I’ve tried hard to be attuned to inspirational women throughout different cultures, from different eras. But somewhere along the way access to this information hasn’t just been gifted to me in a history lesson, and I’ve forgotten to look too deep. Which is why randomly coming across an account that’s new on social media is a reminder that I have to constantly shift through images of Kim K’s ‘empowering’ butt and tokenistic female icons in order to find truly, deeply, madly inspirational women.

It also made me realise how hard it is to be engaged outside of your interests. With all the access to information I’m privileged to, I tend to surf the same sites and like the same photos, my exploration is limited to ‘People you may know’ and Spotify’s ‘Related Artists’. If we only ever circumnavigate our interests via algorithms, will we ever find anything new reflected back at us? My click-hole trail to Illustrated WIH wouldn’t be anything too radical – sites I already follow lead to sites that are like the one’s I already follow leading me to a new site I’ll happily follow – an ouroboros of self-congratulating knowledge. Being confronted with famous, historic women I don’t know, that I haven’t been inspired by yet, is a joyous moment and a lesson to randomly pick a book off the shelf and flick through. From now on I’m going to try to float a finger on a page, read a paragraph and associate away from algorithms. And thanks Illustrated WIH, for introducing me to faces both known and new: 

Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa was a self-described Chicana/Tejana/lesbian/dyke/feminist/writer/poet/cultural theorist. She is best known for her book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza about growing up on the U.S./Mexican border. Via illustratedwih.

Screenshot via illustratedwih.

Screenshot via illustratedwih.

Begum Rokeya was a leading Muslim feminist writer and social worker in undivided Bengal during the early 20th century. She fought for gender equality and established the first school for Muslim girls, which still exists today. Via illustratedwih.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp was a Swiss artist, painter, sculptor, textile designer and dancer. She was one of the foremost figures of the Dada art movement, and is considered one of the most important artists of concrete art and geometric abstraction of the 20th century. Via illustratedwih.

Sophie Taeuber-Arp was a Swiss artist, painter, sculptor, textile designer and dancer. She was one of the foremost figures of the Dada art movement, and is considered one of the most important artists of concrete art and geometric abstraction of the 20th century. Via illustratedwih.

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