As a girl, I was both amused and inspired by Abigail Adams’ 1776 letter to her husband John, in which she urged him and other members of the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies” when considering the laws for the newly formed country. Today I admire her even more, and find it fitting that in the month currently dedicated to women’s history, she would suggest that they “[B]e more generous and favorable to them [women] than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.” While historians describe her tone as jesting (I wonder?), her ideas were, literally, revolutionary. It would be more than 150 years before women could vote, and even now it would be hard to argue that Abigail’s hopes have all come to pass. Certainly this has been a year in which many women have felt a need to have their particular voices heard.
So we have Women’s History Month. What does this have to do with creativity? In order for anyone to be creative he or she must have creative self-efficacy, that is, individuals must believe they have the capacity to do creative things. Not surprisingly, if we believe we can’t do something, we are much less likely to attempt it. How do we develop self-efficacy? The most powerful way is to actually do the thing—the more times I am successful in creating a mosaic the way I envision it, the more confidence I have approaching the next one. But what about that first attempt? One key source of self-efficacy is modeling, that is, seeing someone you perceive as like yourself in some way succeed. If I see one of my friends write a song, despite limited musical training, I might decide to try it, too. If all my song writing models seem too distant or too different, it is much harder to muster up confidence. And if all the models of creative achievement are men? The young women who see them are less likely to be confident in their creative potential than are young men.
So, until such a time when the models shared in traditional curriculum are more varied, it is important to take the time to make sure all the students before us see creative accomplishment from people who look like them. This month, we can think about women (and if you missed African American History Month in February, well, the stories are still good now.) When girls understand that the women behind Hidden Figures did not just calculate, but helped invent new mathematics on the fly, they are more likely to think it is possible to be mathematicians. When they see images of Alice Guy Blaché directing early films or Frida Kahlo painting, even while bedridden, they are more likely to envision themselves with creative potential in trying circumstances. Remember that beginning in early years, girls are less likely to consider activities in which it is necessary to be “really really smart.” I suspect they simply can imagine themselves doing them. We need to work on that.
If you’d like start sharing more models of women, an excellent place to start is with the online exhibits of the National Women’s History Museum. It has a fascinating collection of exhibits from Chinese American Women to Clandestine Women: Spies in American History, Early Women in Film, and all manner of other topics. If you are interested in purchasing student-friendly books and other resources, see A Mighty Girl. Where else can you find a Marie Curie doll or a Rosie the Riveter action figure right next to Doc McStuffins? If you follow them on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll also learn interesting facts about mighty girls and women on a regular basis.
However you choose to do it, please take a moment this month to consider whether the girls around you have a full range of creative examples readily visible. If not, let’s get working on that!
PS If you’d like to see Abigail Adams’ full letter, you can read it at the Massachusetts Historical Society website.