The Real Rosa Parks: She's Still Got Lessons to Teach

Rosa Parks and her niece, Urana McCauley

Rosa Parks and her niece, Urana McCauley

The telling of women's lives – in history and obituaries – suffer similar fates due to a societal impulse to adhere to images of feminine virtues that make their lives and actions more palatable for us. Yet in doing this, the totality of women's lives – the significance of their actual accomplishments – remains hidden or untold.

This treatment of women was brought to mind when I read this story about Rosa Parks – "Rosa Parks Was My Aunt. Here's What You Don't Know About Her: Last week marked her 105th birthday — it's time to move beyond the quiet seamstress narrative."

Told by her niece, in this excerpt she asks us to appreciate the totality of her aunt's life – what she accomplished (not just on that one day), what she endured due to the person she was and the actions she too, and how she improved the lives of others:

My aunt was a known person in the community. She became the recording secretary for the NAACP almost 15 years before she refused to give up her seat on that bus. ... I know people might still try to belittle my Auntie Rosa by saying, ‘Oh she was just a little seamstress.’ But that ‘little seamstress’ is proof you can be anything out here and still make changes in your community.

Through the decades words slipped through to me about how my own mythologize introduction to Rosa Parks as "tired seamstress" who took a white person's seat on a Montgomery bus didn't capture her essence. Yes, by taking that seat and refusing to move Rosa Parks ignited the racial boycott of the city's busses. But it's essential that I know more about her life than this one tale. It's vital that all of us do, most of all children who still being taught only this about Rosa Parks.

We do this to women, and to men though not so much and without the gender overlays being so visible. Rosa's niece encourages all of us to drop our myth making and get on with learning the fuller story about her aunt's life and those of other women.

Which makes me think about women's obituaries. Here is the opening paragraph of an obituary about author Colleen McCullough:

First of all, there are a lot fewer obituaries about women than about men. Women are quoted a lot less on the pages of newspaper, such as The New York Times, so we should not be surprised to discover that as death mimics life we get to read less about women's lives than we do about men's.

When women's obituaries appear the stories told tend to perpetuate the sexism that a lot of women contend with in life. Take a read of this Guardian column. "Obituaries show that sexism follows women to the grave." An excerpt:

That there is such a thing as post-mortem misogyny might be funny if it weren’t so depressing. Because as unbelievably eye-rolling as they are – a literal rocket scientist reduced to a dinner dish – they’re also a clear reminder to women that their most important accomplishments will always be shadowed by their gender.
— Jessica Valenti, The Guardian

Which makes me think about women's obituaries. Here is the opening paragraph of an obituary about author Colleen McCullough:

COLLEEN McCullough, Australia’s best selling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature, and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth. In one interview, she said: ‘I’ve never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men.’
— The Australian, Obituary
Colleen McCullough.jpeg

After this obituary went viral, this satirical Washington Post column, "Obituaries for Men" appeared in which famous men's obituaries were patterned after its style and tone with a physical description seems mandatory. A few examples:

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Though he looked like a wrinkly potato that had not slept in six years, some people liked his social policies okay.

James Joyce: Despite a marked resemblance to Henry Bemis in that “Time Enough At Last” episode of “The Twilight Zone,” nevertheless, this unappetizing little fellow wrote a couple of books.

Ernest Hemingway: This man looked like a big drunk cat. Contributed to literature in some way, possibly.

Charles Darwin: This man looked like something that came out of the ice just slightly to your left on the evolutionary scale, which was strangely apt given what he spent his life doing.
— Alexandra Petri, The Washington Post

Here's my idea: Women should write their own obituaries. Two words I will put in my first paragraph: resisted and persisted.