Women’s History Month: Painting and Empowering Adolescent Girls by Angela Yarber

In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Holy Women Icons Project is excited to launch Revolutionary Girls, a new program seeking to empower marginalized adolescent girls by telling the stories of revolutionary women through art, writing, and discussion. Partnering with local schools and other non-profit organizations in the Puna District of Hawai’i County, we are creating a curriculum that features often overlooked historical and mythological women whose lives, legends, and legacies embody empowerment, resilience, and emotional intelligence that can embolden adolescent girls to become socially aware revolutionary leaders.

Research shows that girls’ self-esteem plummets in early adolescence, due in part to unrealistic body images in media and casual (or even overt) sexism from parents, teachers, and peers. Our Revolutionary Girls project aims to counter these negative influences by offering girls aged 11-15 a space of empowerment. Prior to adolescence, many girls believe they are as smart, strong, and capable of leadership as boys. At the onset of puberty, girls are often taught that their only value is in their appearance, and that they are not as capable or valuable as men and boys. Simultaneously, girls are exposed primarily to the histories and myths of men in power while in the classroom, the revolutionary lives, legends, and legacies of countless revolutionary women altogether absent from their textbooks and lessons.

The problems of self-confidence and representation are multiplied in our geographic area because many girls are also poor and/or racial minorities. In fact, Hawai’i County is both the poorest county in the state and the most racially and ethnically diverse county in the nation; Puna is the poorest district in the county, making it one of the most underserved places in the country. Revolutionary Girls addresses some of these problems by exposing adolescent girls and boys to some of the women from history and myth who have shaped our world without receiving the credit, proving that they, too, can become revolutionary leaders.

We’ve already had the honor of teaching two fabulous groups of 6th graders who proudly located Kenya on their world map, placing an image of Wangari Maathai in Nairobi as a reminder of their responsibility to plant seeds of kindness; or contorted their bodies into an eagle pose asana while discussing the ways Sarasvati teaches us about interconnectedness.

In celebration of the 31 days of Women’s History Month, and the adolescent girls who are now enlivened by the stories of revolutionary historical women, I’d like to offer you a brief glimpse at 31 women from history who have rocked our world…

There’s Harriet Tubman, who liberated over seventy slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Gloria Anzaldua, a queer Latinx philosopher who lived at the borderlands of Mexico and Texas, creating bridges between difference.

Freya Stark, a passionate nomad and intrepid traveler who adventured where few women had gone before.

Emma Lazarus, a Jewish poet who wrote the New Colossus on the Statue of Liberty, reminding us to welcome the immigrant and refugee.

Georgia O’Keeffe, a feminist artist who changed the landscape of painting in America.

Midwives of Standing Rock, honoring the many Lakota women who remind the nation that water is life.

Anna Julia Cooper, the fourth African American woman to earn a PhD who described god as the “Singing Something” inside all humanity.

Dorothy Day, an anarchist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement who lived in solidarity with the poor and taught daily works of mercy.

Mothers of Black Lives Matter, intersectional feminists who remind us that all lives will matter when Black Lives Matter.

Isadora Duncan, unconstrained by decorum, she created interpretive dance and set women free. Fatima, daughter-in-law of Rumi and leader of the Sufi whirling dervishes.

Marsha P. Johnson, gay liberation activist and self-identified drag queen who fought for LGBTQ rights.

Jane Addams, queer founder of social work, pacifist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The Grimke Sisters, Angelina and Sarah, were abolitionists, pacifists, women’s rights activists and vegetarians.

Jarena Lee, the first woman licensed to preach by the AME church.

Sojourner Truth, who asked the white women at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Convention, “Ain’t I a woman?”

Mary Daly, radical lesbian philosopher who dared us to dream of divinity beyond god the father.

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan political activist, ecofeminist founder of the Green Belt Movement, and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Mother Teresa, a nun who devoted her life to serving the least among us, reminding us that love is most important.

Pauli Murray, queer civil rights activist and first African American woman ordained Episcopal priest.

Dolores Huerta, who continues to make history as a labor leader, activist, and advocate for reform for farmworkers.

Martha Graham, revolutionary founder of modern dance who claimed, “Wherever a dancer stands is holy ground.”

Perpetua and Felicity, early Christian martyrs who kissed while being stoned and Patron Saints of Same-Sex Couples.

Sappho, hailing from the island of Lesbos, her ancient and erotic love poetry gave us the term “lesbian.”

Virginia Woolf, a daring writer who taught us that every woman deserves a room of her own.

Frida Kahlo, a Mexican revolutionary, artist, founder of Surrealism, and a queer woman who “painted her reality.”

Maya Angelou, author, dancer, poet, activist, and revolutionary who embodies what it means to “rise!”

Mary Magdalene, who, despite being shunned and shamed, became the first apostle in the Christian tradition.

Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist who, even after being shot by the Taliban, continues to advocate for education for girls and women.

Queen Liliokalani, the first queen and last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai’i.

And Catherine Hulda Duleep Singh, a queer Sikh suffragette.

Did you learn about these revolutionary women in your history classes? Do their stories fill your text books? Do you see them stained in glass and displayed in every cathedral? They changed our world and their stories deserve to be told. So, let’s tell them, empowering women and girls to become the revolutionary leaders of tomorrow!

If you’d like to purchase any merchandise with our Women’s History Month collage on it—prints, cards, totes—click here. If you’d like to donate to the Revolutionary Girls program, click here!

Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is the Founder and Creative Director of the Holy Women Icons Project. She holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion. A professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, she is the author of seven books. As an author and professional artist, she is creating a retreat center with her wife and child on Hawai’i Island as a part of the Holy Women Icons Project non-profit. 

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