Searching for America’s Invisible Women

Amelia Earhart and her famous plane to be made into a parade balloon.

Saturday marked the 113th anniversary of the birth of Amelia Earhart, the pioneering female pilot who blew the world’s assumptions of women’s abilities out of the sky by becoming the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Saturday also marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Alphonse Mucha, a Czech Art Nouveau painter known for his images of delicate white women with long flowing hair that you’re most likely to have seen on greeting cards.

Which one Google did decide to honor with one of it’s homepage Google Doodle designs? If you guessed the man who drew women instead of the woman, you’re cynical -  but rightfully.

Yes, 150 is a much rounder and bigger number than 113 – and that number seems a little sinister to the superstitious considering how Earhart died -  but 110 is also a much, much bigger number than 8, which is now the ratio of male to female historical figures Google Doodle has featured since it’s inception in 1999.

When I first wrote about the almost complete invisibility of women in Google Doodles, I explained why parity in internet graphics should concern feminists:

…we’ve lived with the myth that men created the world and everything good in it for long enough. As long as men get to designate who and what in history is important, young women will continue to learn that all their sex has contributed throughout all of history is their wombs. If we can’t see ourselves as the inventors, artists, revolutionaries and creators that came before, how the hell are we supposed to fashion ourselves into the modern versions?

Since writing that, I’ve become hyper-aware of the almost complete absence of women, especially women of color, in every venue and form in which we as a society honor our political, artistic, and cultural forebears. A sampling:

  • Of almost 150 historical statues in New York City, only 5 are women and only 1, Harriet Tubman, is a woman of color. Of 29 sculptures in Central Park, 4 are female: Alice in Wonderland, Juliet of Romeo and Juliet, Mother Goose, and Mary from The Secret Garden.
  • Of the 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall at the Capitol in Washington, DC, only 9 are women.
  • There is no national American holiday named for a woman. We’ve got MLK day, Columbus Day,  and Presidents Day (formerly Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays) – but not a single day for a woman who shaped America.
  • Despite being half the population, stamps memorializing men outnumber stamps memorializing women 3 to 1. Of the 55 stamps to be issues this summer, 16 will depict real people and 4 of those will be women. Puerto Rican poet Julia de Borgos will be the only woman of color honored, right alongside Kate Smith, infamous for singing the racist, pro-slavery song, “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.”
  • The last time a woman’s portrait appeared on a U.S. currency note was in the 19th century, before the establishment of our modern monetary system. Martha Washington’s portrait appeared on the face of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1886 and 1891, and the back of the $1 Silver Certificate of 1896. There hasn’t been a single woman’s face on our paper currency since then. Women don’t fare much better on metal money – the U.S. Mint issued 50 new state-themed quarters between 1999 and 2008  and not a single one included an image or tribute to a woman.

Thanks to the work of feminists, most American young women go through life without ever being told they can’t grow up to be doctors or scientists, politicians or aviators. Yet by refusing to equally honor the women who’ve made significant contributions to the country as we do the men, we show them that women don’t and haven’t ever done the things that are worthy of respect and replication. This is as damaging as it is untrue.

Which is why the work of a new non-profit called Equal Visibility Everywhere is so, so cool – and so very important. Formed in March of this year, the organization is “dedicated to achieving gender parity in the symbols and icons of the United States.” Included in their 8 target projects are efforts to get more women into National Statuary Hall and on stamps and coins, encouraging municipalities to name more streets and schools after women, and monitoring how women are portrayed and represented in museum exhibits.

EVE’s biggest project – literally – is raising money for a 40-foot balloon replica of Amelia Earhart’s red Lockheed Vega 5B, with Amelia in her aviator’s cap waving from the cockpit, to appear in parades across the country. (Women are definitely disproportionately represented in the balloon line-up – of 108 characters depicted in the 86 year history of the famed Macy Thanksgiving Day Parade, only 10 have been women.) If EVE reaches their $9,801 goal by the end of this month, the balloon will debut in the Philadelphia Labor Day parade, with TV announcers reading text about the organization and the near invisibility of women in cultural celebrations.

EVE is also looking for volunteers to help them complete their other projects – I, for one, am excited about pushing New York to represent our state with a statue of Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for President, in the National Statuary Hall. How will you show your mother, sisters, and daughters women made and are making history?

12 Comments

Filed under Feminism, Herstory

12 responses to “Searching for America’s Invisible Women

  1. Yvonne

    Thanks so much for posting this.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Shelby. This is so cool — I just found your post about the Google thing a few days ago, and was thinking “we have got to cover that at EVE.” And now you tie them both together so beautifully.

    Thanks for the shout-out!

  3. Shelby, thanks so much for continuing your analysis of the lack of representation of women of color and white women in Google Doodle and also for bringing EVE to the attention of your readers. Every changed symbol helps-

  4. Pingback: Google Doodles and invisible women : EVE | Equal Visibility Everywhere

  5. Thank you for pointing out Google’s sexist choices. Did you try contacting them about it?

  6. Elliot Baron

    I wrote to Dr. Lynette Long when she first pointed out the fact that Google saluted Alphonse Mucha over Amelia Earhardt. The oversight is less than it appears. Having returned from the Czech Republic just prior to this instance, I can first of all tell you that Mucha is a very big deal in Europe. Google caters to an international audience, not only Americans. Finally, as the founder of the Art Nouveau movement, it would seem natural that the graphic designers who decide whom they want to honor, might consider Mucha more highly than the average person. Last but not least, Mucha’s most famous works were of Sarah Bernhardt, who commissioned Mucha to produce all of her posters.

    By the way, I am sympathetic to the argument and am a donor to the Earhardt balloon project. I just don’t think that everything is always at it might first appear. Today, Google honored Rosa Parks.

  7. Julie

    Shelby, I have noticed this horrible discrepency, and to find this article, I “binged” it, rather than Google it. Though a couple of years ago, I “Googled” it, and found something written about it. Perhaps it was another article by you. Again today, July 20th, 2011, another man. Each time there is a doodle, I hope to see it is a woman, and I am almost always disappointed. And why do we celebrate birthday dates 189 years later? All bizarre and obnoxious to me.

  8. Annie

    Every time there is a Doodle, I think about this article and how I keep hoping that Google will notice their bias and take progressive, purposeful action in this area.

    My friends and I have taken to calling them “Dude-les,” and each time one is posted we exchange an email with a listing of women and people of color who were born on the same day and could have been chosen instead. I want to DO something more significant about this, but I don’t know where to start. Thanks for highlighting this issue!

  9. Pingback: Resources for Speaking Up « Speaking Up

  10. richwhiteguy

    Perhaps we should weigh the evidence. Amelia thought that she could fly a plane as well as a man. The men of her day, (rich and white), told her that she couldn’t. The result was that she ignored their advice, got lost, crashed, and died.
    Rich white men: 1
    Feminists: 0

    She really should have taken their advice and just stuck with making sandwiches.

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