This is, of course, a familiar story: a powerful woman’s influence minimized, or completely ignored, in the telling of our history. In 2014, less than 11 percent of the historical figures referenced in U.S. K-12 history textbooks were women, one analysis found, and fewer than 5 percent of U.S. historic landmarks chronicled women’s contributions. And many of those women are remembered, as Lady Bird was for so long, less for their own achievements than for their associations with powerful men.
As Sweig’s book demonstrates, ignoring women’s contributions isn’t just an issue of fairness. The problem is that we simply get our history wrong.
Lady Bird emerges in Sweig’s biography as among President Lyndon B. Johnson’s most powerful advisers in matters of both politics and policy. She is likely the reason he served so many years in the first place; after he assumed office following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, she drafted a seven-page strategy memo arguing that he run for election and outlining his eventual trajectory in detail. She provided crucial support when anxiety and depression threatened to overwhelm the president and put an early end to his career. She had a deep understanding of the most important issues the country faced and influenced her husband in key policy decisions. She advocated strongly for environmental and social justice and cautioned that the Vietnam War could be a disaster for the country and Johnson himself. Yet despite extensive records and audio diaries, her legacy has, until now, never been properly understood.
The fact that such recent, well-recorded contributions can be so universally ignored for so long is a telling indicator of just how many stories we tell about our past are leaving out key figures.
Fortunately, more and more historians have started to uncover these lost characters and write more accurate versions of our past. New forms of media in particular facilitate revisionist histories that dig deeper into the historical record in search of influential people and stories that have been omitted from our collective memory. Podcasts like “What’s Her Name,” “Encyclopedia Womannica” and “The History Chicks” have built substantial followings by sharing little-known stories of significant women. (Sweig, too, produced a successful podcast about Lady Bird Johnson to accompany her book.) For Women’s History Month this March, the Wikimedia Foundation launched Project Rewrite, which uses the power of global crowdsourcing to discover and share the stories of notable women. And in 2019, a California nonprofit launched an app called Lessons in Herstory that lets students scan any picture of a man in a history textbook and learn about a related woman whose story is typically forgotten. Already, the app has been adopted by schools in seven U.S. states.
These accounts are introducing people to the stories of women like Mary Bowser, a freed enslaved person who came back to the South during the Civil War to work in the household of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and pass intel to the Union Army. Or Dorothy Thompson, the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany for her critical reporting in the 1930s. Or Alice Ball, a Black chemist who came up with the first safe and effective treatment for leprosy in the early 20th century — only to have credit for the invention stolen by the male president of the college where she worked.
“How many other women,” Sweig asked, upon finishing her history of Lady Bird, “are ‘in plain sight,’ women in powerful positions and many more unseen women whose stories likewise make up the fabric of who we are and who we will become as a society?” But fortunately, she adds, there is an answer: “We just have to look. And listen.”