Everything we do begins with a story. Without story, we would perish. We don’t get off that couch and head to the kitchen unless we have first told ourselves a little story: “There’s food in that kitchen, it will taste good, erase the feeling of hunger, and thanks to it I will survive.” We may not say those words out loud, and if we do, someone should call a doctor. But at the most primal level, that story is told and its lesson heeded.
When I started studying at Leuphana University Lüneburg, I eventually went into the library and couldn’t help notice the quote by Thomas Jefferson on the library staircase. The words and possible meanings were resonating with me. By studying here, I imagined, I can create a better future. No matter how dark the past is, we can make the future brighter.
Now that a few semesters have passed, I recently started to question the quote. By only looking into the future, don’t we neglect the past? What kind of quote is this to put in a library, which basically consists of works of the past? Is there a deeper meaning to why a quote by Thomas Jefferson was chosen? And is it suitable to put his words on our walls? What else is there to know about Jefferson and his dreams for the future?
“It is my honor to be here, to stand on the shoulders of those who came before,” Kamala Harris, the first female, the first black, the first Asian American Vice-President of the U.S.A. proudly said in her first address to the nation on inauguration day. Her tone is optimistic, her goals are ambitious, and her energy seems unlimited.
It is true, we all are standing on the shoulders of those who came before, all the women who prepared the way for our progress, our achievements. And there has been quite a bit of progress as Carol Dyhouse, a social historian at the University of Sussex, describes in her new book, Love Lives: From Cinderella to Frozen. The title is a bit misleading. Though myths, fairy tales, and popular culture tropes still influence us, Dyhouse outlines how women in the western world have abandoned the restrictions of domestic life since the 1950s and gradually, though often painfully, have claimed access to education and the professional world. A long path it has been to self-determination and economic independence.
But even now the question remains: Have we made enough progress? Because I do worry about “my girls” these days, as Michelle Obama describes them. I worry about “my boys,” too, but this is a blog post to remind ourselves of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. Both encourage us to reflect on those who came before, but also on those to whom we pass the baton, whose legs we steady on our shoulders.