For many young girls of color growing up in years past, the idea of “if you can see it, you can be it” (to quote Geena Davis) was problematic given that representation of women of color on screen and in public life was rare. That’s not to say women of color doing inspirational things did not exist. Quite the opposite, in fact! But the problem lies with those who have the power to record history for all the world to see.
In recent years, we’ve seen the landscape change drastically with social and digital media, and the recognition of the need for more diverse voices, especially those of underrepresented individuals, many of whom are women of color.
So what has changed?
Women of color creating their own proverbial “seat at the table”, making visible the leaders and pioneers who deserve to have their stories shared far and wide. One of those WOC creating visibility is Ann Shen – the author of a new book called ‘Revolutionary Women’, out November 1, 2022. ‘Revolutionary Women’ celebrates the amazing stories of 50 women of color who pushed boundaries, rewrote the rules, and inspired women everywhere to follow in their footsteps.
From making their mark on the big screen and in the halls of NASA to ruling on the courts of the US Open and the Supreme Court, their incredible stories will inspire you to embrace your authentic self and live your life in full color.
For fans of Ann Shen’s beloved ‘Bad Girls Throughout History’, this spiritual successor celebrates the accomplishments of these incredible women alongside Ann Shen’s signature artwork. From dancers, actors, and singers to scientists, astronauts, politicians, and activists, these women used their voices and their passions to change the world. They include:
- Gloria Estefan, one of the best-selling female music artists of all time.
- Anna Sui, an iconic fashion designer for over four decades.
- Bessie Stringfield, the motorcycle queen of Miami.
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever sworn into Congress.
- Misty Copeland, the first Black woman principal dancer at American Ballet Theater.
- Joyce Chen, the first Chinese celebrity chef.
There are familiar names, of course, but some whose stories are yet to be discovered by generations of readers, which we were excited to also learn about! So we had the chance to speak with Ann to find out more about how she put this book together, who her role models were growing up as a young Asian-American woman, and the impact of younger generations seeing more role models of color as they grow up.
What made you want to write a book like ‘Revolutionary Women’?
In my own personal evolution and growth, while writing and illustrating my last three books about women and history, I realized there was a gap in the market for a book that featured minority women and their triumphs. So often, media about BIPOC and women of color center our pain. I wanted to celebrate and highlight our joys, our complexity, our tenacity, our adaptability, and our ambitions. As a minority woman myself, I wanted very much to see a book that featured people like me as the star of our own stories. I knew there were so many stories out there! But no one was writing them – so I started to!
What was your process of choosing the women you included?
Writing about women of color is an interesting process because people of color are, in fact, the global majority – and there are endless people who have done incredible things in their ancestral countries of origin whose stories deserve to be told. ‘Revolutionary Women’ gave me the chance to write about the unique experience and triumphs of women of color who exist as minorities in their culture or country. As we become a more globalized culture, the impact of these women’s stories can be felt—and hopefully heard—even more.
You focus on women of color trailblazers – why is this important to see more of today?
In places where colonialism created a system of historic oppression, it’s inspiring to read about the heroic, funny, charming, and brilliant women whose stories fell between the cracks. They are all trailblazers in their own ways, and it’s more important than ever to see women of color as leaders and in positions of power to inspire more people who’ve ever felt like it couldn’t happen for them, or that it’s too late.
Who were some of the women of color you looked up to growing up?
Margaret Cho, SuChin Pak on MTV, and Lucy Liu were all huge for me growing up – it was the only time I ever saw Asian-American women on screen and portrayed as cool, complex, American girls and not just stereotypes or jokes.
Growing up as an Asian-American woman did you ever wish you would see more women and girls who looked like you in the media and entertainment you consumed? And how did you seek to BE the change you wished to see?
Growing up, I thought I wanted to be an actor because I was so disappointed that we never saw young Asian-American leads in shows. The acting bug itself never bit me, but I love that following my heart into art and writing has led me to a place where I’m often the face of my work, doing signing events and meeting lots of people of all backgrounds, and speaking on panels at huge events like D23 or schools and universities. I think it’s essential to see people like you – and even not like you, but not like the vast sea of sameness – out here doing work and getting significant opportunities.
Especially for the Asian-American community, where the creative fields are often a place frowned upon as career possibilities for kids growing up. I hope reading about creative trailblazers like Dorothy Toy and Nancy Kwan and what they achieved can help light the fire within someone who needs it.
You are also a Disney Illustrator. How did you get into this field and what do you love most about it?
I started working with Disney through their WonderGround Gallery, which is a place for artists to really get an opportunity to create work with their classic characters in a more modern, stylized way. I’ve been working with the gallery since 2016, and have done many Artist in Residencies where I paint live and talk to a lot of people who dream about being artists or are just fans of the artwork. That’s the best part – meeting people who love the artwork. I’ve had families come year after year and I get to chat with budding artists as they grow up every year!
We’ve seen a huge revolutionary push within Disney to see more diverse female characters being represented on screen. What are some of the parallels you see between what Disney are doing, and your book ‘Revolutionary Women’?
I think it’s wonderful that, as an industry leader, they are choosing to feature more diverse female characters as the main character of their own stories. Mirabel in ‘Encanto’ was not only the first Latinx lead, but the first one to wear glasses! And For many little kids who wear glasses, it was almost just as important to be represented in film!
What I try to do with my books is always introduce people to new incredible women who’ve been overlooked by history, and include fun information about people you may think you already know all about. It presents history as layered and complex – people of color have always been a part of it, and we’re doing so much to unlearn that and see ourselves as the stars of our lives. And for others to see people of color as leads too – something that is still very challenging in our current times. I want to normalize it, and I hope ‘Revolutionary Women’ helps do that. Seeing and learning about other people doing that in the past helps embolden us to do so.
How did you design the artwork for each woman’s story, and what inspiration did you look to for the illustrations?
For this book, I wanted to create a departure from my past books in that the artwork will speak to each woman’s character and legacy. Each element represents something to layer their story. It was something as simple as using Cherokee Rose motifs for Wilma Mankiller, and the state flower of Maharashtra for Anandaibai Joshee (because that’s where she was born). Or it would capture part of their story – like when Naomi Osaka was blessed by a monarch butterfly during a game.
The book contains a number of familiar names – Gloria Estefan, Misty Copeland and designer Anna Sui. Who are some of the lesser known women we will get to learn about, that you had fun researching and writing about?
Oh there are so many fun ones, like the world’s first Black trans supermodel Tracey Norman, the Motorcycle Queen of Miami Bessie Stringfield, and America’s First Prima Ballerina Maria Tallchief.
Your book is for all genders and ages to be inspired by. How does society and culture as a whole benefit, when we see more women of color and minorities represented in the mainstream?
The more mainstream we are, the more normalized it is to see women of color and minorities in all levels and layers of life. The more we can normalize that, the more we can humanize everyone and not become so segregated in our perspectives of us vs. them. When we see that we are more alike than we thought and have the same dreams, we can support each other better in creating a more inclusive world and decrease the amount of vitriol and violence in our communities.