This post is part of celebrating Women’s History month with 31 days of posts focused on improving the climate for social and gender equality in the children’s and teens’ literature community. Join in the conversation on Twitter #kidlitwomen or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen.
I recently read a New York Times article https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/19/us/twitter-mystery-photo.html about the search for the identity of the lone woman in a 1971 photograph of marine biologists. The young woman, who was African American and mostly obscured by the man standing in front of her, was the only one not named in the caption. It’s highly likely she’d have gone forever overlooked if Candace Jean Anderson, aiming to write a picture book about marine mammal protection, hadn’t come across the picture and wondered who she was.
Anderson turned to Twitter, where professional and amateur researchers alike joined the hunt, finally identifying and locating Sheila Minor Huff. Now 71 and a grandmother (not to mention a belly dancer), she holds a master’s degree and had a long, successful federal government career working on wildlife and environmental projects. The discovery drew cheers all around, but Ms. Huff just sort of shrugged. The Times reported:
“’It’s kind of like, no big deal,’ she said. ‘When I try to do good, when I try and add back to this wonderful earth that we have, when I try to protect it, does it matter that anybody knows my name?’”
Up till this point in the article, I’d been furious and outraged on Ms. Huff’s behalf. But here I paused. Because something in me was agreeing. A voice was saying, It’s true. If we do good work, if we know we’ve done good, important work that makes a difference in the world, why do we need others’ praise and recognition?
Sheila Huff and I are the same generation. As a white woman, I know our childhoods differed in deep, essential ways. To achieve what she did took a determination and courage I can’t begin to understand. But when it comes to her thoughts on being recognized, I’ll risk saying: I think I know how she feels. Every woman of our generation heard a version of the same lesson. We were brought up to feel grateful for any good fortune, large and small. No matter how hard we worked, in school and our careers, no matter what success we experienced, pride was an unattractive, even dangerous, trait in us. Feel proud for your husband, feel proud for your children, but for yourself? Smile and say how lucky you are. Never blow your own horn, was the lesson we got with our corn flakes. Be humble.
Be satisfied, was the real message. And I have been. Enormously. Like Sheila Huff, I’ve had the satisfaction of doing meaningful work and believing that work will live on after me. Tending the earth and writing for children are both joyful, creative, life affirming acts. Who—especially a woman brought up to think that humility was her cardinal virtue–wouldn’t feel grateful for the chance to spend her life the way she and I have?
And yet. Every day this month, I’ve read extraordinary posts by other writers at https://www.facebook.com/kidlitwomen/ They’ve made me laugh and fume, sometimes nod and sometimes gasp–and over and over again they’ve pulled me up short, forcing me to stop and think. They’ve made me consider the empowering, you-are-a-star messages I repeatedly give my daughters, my granddaughter, the children I speak to in schools and libraries. How fervently I believe what I tell them! And yet, this month I’ve come to realize that, hard as I’ve tried to banish the old attitudes, they still lurk inside, waiting to pounce.
True humility springs from embracing our commonality. It’s nothing like self-deprecation, just as pride doesn’t imply arrogance, and wanting recognition isn’t greed. One of my favorite quotes from this month of posts came from Lita Judge who wrote, “Thinking we are lucky when we are accomplished steals our power.” It’s exactly the message I try to give others, so why do I still have trouble believing it’s true for me too? And here’s the most important question of all: if I don’t believe it, deep in my own bones, can I ever be a real agent for change?
We all deserve to be seen, to be heard, to be named. Sheila Minor Huff—we see you now, we know your name, and we thank you for your wonderful, generous work. As this month of posts draws to an end, I’m grateful, in the most positive sense of that word, to the fellow writers (men and women) who’ve shaken me up. They’ve called out to me, and I’m going to try to answer.