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Who was Sybil Ludington and why do we care?


We have just concluded the celebration of Women’s History Month on our campus. It is one of several cultural heritage events we hold throughout the school year.  Why is there a national Women’s History Month?  During the 1970’s as women gathered in “consciousness-raising groups” to discuss inequities in pay, civil rights, and education (to name a few topics) we realized that our history and achievements had been left out of the K-12 curriculum and textbooks. This led to a national movement to reclaim women’s history culminating in the Congressional declaration in 1987 of every March as Women’s History Month.

For example, you’ve heard of the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere during the American Revolution but have you ever heard of Sybil Ludington? Sybil was a 16 year old girl who on the night of April 26, 1777 rode through towns in New York and Connecticut warning that the “Redcoats” were coming to Danbury, CT. Her warning gathered enough volunteers to beat back the British that day and she rode twice as far as Paul did.

She did not make it into the history books (until now) but a grateful citizenry did rename her hometown after her. But most women of accomplishment did not get any recognition from their peers or hometowns and were lost to history… until recently.  So during Women’s History month we pause and take time to remember our history and that of our ancestors, colleagues and friends and honor their achievements and their contributions to our lives.

But celebrating the achievements of women during Women’s History Month and throughout the year is important for another reason. Cultural mandates still exist which suggest that women subordinate our need for recognition to that of others and gender stereotypes continue to influence perceptions of women’s performance as well as women’s perceptions of self.

In her article, “Do Women Lack Ambition?” (Harvard Business Review, April 2004, p. 33) psychiatrist Anna Fels explains that women seek mastery and want recognition for a job well done as ardently as men.  She notes that expectation of recognition is a necessary motivator for achieving mastery of anything and especially to master a skill set or knowledge that requires a prolonged effort. But even today it can be risky for women to “toot their own horns” too loudly.  She notes that traditional notions of femininity require that women be seen as serving others and even relinquishing resources (including recognition) to others.

As explained by Alice Eagly in her book, Through the Labyrinth, when two sets of expectations compete, “what results is an attitudinal penalty, or lower evaluation, of the person who is stereotypically mismatched to a role.”[1]

Yet, we do have to take responsibility for getting our achievements noticed. We can’t sit around doing good work and expecting to be rewarded when the people who hand out raises and promotions don’t know about it. This has been described as the “tiara” effect …waiting for someone to notice your efforts and place a crown on your head for doing a good job. It only happens that way in fairy tales.

In a 2011 study by the Catalyst organization of MBA’s in top corporations, they found the two factors that most predicted women’s advancement was making their achievements known and gaining access to powerful people in the organization.[2]

So the dilemma for women is how to get recognition for mastery and achievement when gender role expectations can lead to labeling women as “bragging” or too “ambitious” when we seek it.

First, we have to keep track of our achievements and record them. This can mean collecting a file of thank-you’s or written compliments to keeping resumes and professional social media sites up to date. Send emails to your supervisor letting them know what you are working on and what you have accomplished….keep them informed.

Find a buddy or ally in a meeting and make an agreement to speak in support of the other’s ideas.

One of my favorite ideas is a suggestion from Professor Joan Williams at the University of California, Hastings, College of Law–“Round up a Posse.” In her new book, What Works for Women at Work, she recommends that you form a group of men and women who will “trumpet each other’s achievements and publicize each other’s work. Having a posse brag on your behalf helps keep backlash at a minimum, because not only does it get your name and your accomplishments out there, it also makes clear that you have allies and supporters of your work. In return, of course, you do the same for them.”[3]

And finally, when someone calls attention to our achievements, we can graciously say “thank you” rather than things like, “I was just lucky”, “I was in the right place” or “my team deserves the credit.” Research shows that women have a tendency to attribute their success to external factors whereas men assume it is from their innate ability.  So just a simple “thank you” will suffice to let the person know their acknowledgement is appreciated and to remind you that you earned it and deserve it!

[1] Eagly, Alice; Carli, Linda; Through the Labyrinth, the truth about how women become leaders, 2007, Harvard Business School Press., p. 96

[2] Catalyst, 2011, Nancy M. Carter, Christine Silva, The Myth of the Ideal Worker

[3] Williams, Joan C.; Dempsey, Rachel, What Works for Women at Work, Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, 2014, New York University Press, p. 106