I study lighthouses and maritime spaces as sites of public memory. I’m interested in how communities construct memories of and through these places. One of my many unexpected discoveries from this work is that women through history have served as lighthouse keepers, a key job in North American history. But we rarely hear these stories — nor those of other women we try to finally give their due during Women’s History Month.
Few people know, for example, of a German immigrant mother and boardinghouse laborer named Kate who met and married the assistant keeper of Sandy Hook Lighthouse in New Jersey in the late 19th century. She started out as her husband’s assistant, but after his death, she kept the lamps lit. In fact, she became the official keeper of Robbins Reef in New York, rescuing fishermen whose crafts struck the reef, maintaining the station, and raising two children.
The stories of Kate and women like her are collected in just one book that I know of, Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers. Many other women’s stories aren’t preserved at all.
Through my work, I’ve seen different reasons why that’s the case. For one thing, men have by and large gotten the credit for writing history, even when it was often the work of women. Take, for example, the fascination (which I shared) earlier this year when researchers published evidence that medieval nuns might have served as scribes, illuminating religious manuscripts with lapis lazuli. Many of us were surprised because we had taken for granted that this work was done by men. But why? Put another way, why not assume that women have been doing all kinds of interesting things since the beginnings of recorded history? The reasons are as old and as complicated as history itself.
But here’s one: Women have struggled throughout history to receive recognition for their work in the public sphere. With some important exceptions, women’s histories have often been recorded in more domestic, private spaces: journals and diaries, recipes and family stories, in the family Bible, or through traditions and family heirlooms. Much of what we know of women lighthouse keepers’ lives, for example, comes from keeper’s logs and personal writings, with the occasional media story or obituary highlighting prominent or unusual moments. Similarly, scholar Rosalyn Collings-Eves has documented how cookbooks preserved the communal history and self-image of African American women where mainstream history did not.
Thankfully, it feels like today more cultural centers are working to highlight untold stories. Last fall in Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of joining a Women’s History Tour by Beyond the Bell Tours, where I learned about people like Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who served George and Martha Washington and escaped from the president’s Philadelphia home in 1796, and Barbara Gittings, a fearless leader of LGBTQA initiatives and protests from the 1950s and into the ’90s. Other inclusive tours from Beyond the Bell cover groups that “official” histories often leave out, including people of color, the LGBTQA community, and the working class.
I hope we can continue reviving these neglected stories. As Women’s History month ends, I recommend that you learn about at least one woman who has changed the course of history. The National Women’s History Museum website is a great place to start.
But beyond that, we must also consider the political and tangible outcomes of not telling women’s stories. Once March ends, we start Sexual Assault Awareness month — a time to pay special attention to what we risk by not listening to and believing women, particularly our stories of harassment, abuse, and assault. The same patriarchy that has delegitimized women’s history delegitimizes survivors’ stories, whatever those survivors’ genders. Listening to and believing survivors, and working toward change, is our assignment for April. As we turn the calendar, let’s learn from our history and write some new stories — and make sure historically ignored voices finally get heard.