In geometry, we define “similar” structures as being of the same shape but of different sizes. I found myself thinking of this recently as we drove through a town in New York named “Ludingtonville.” It reminded me of a statue in the middle of my home town that shows a figure on a horse obviously shouting something to anyone who would listen. Before looking closely, one might assume that it is a statue of Paul Revere, the famous man who alerted the Continental Army of the arrival of the British in Massachusetts. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that this figure is not Paul Revere, but is female. In fact, it is a statue of a teenage girl, Sybil Ludington.
I grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, which is perhaps best known for a labor strike in its famous hat industry in the early 1900s. However, there is another story to be told relating to that town, and I was able to tell it to my daughter as we drove through that small town in New York recently. It seems that this story is very similar to the better known story of Paul Revere, except that this story involves a girl not much older than my daughter. The full story can be found at a web site managed by the Danbury Museum and Historical Society.
When I was younger, this Museum and Historical Society was housed in a very old home that was open for tours. I used to volunteer for them, and it was there, as I sifted through old photographs and books, that I got my first taste of research. I remember going home once after spending the day trying to identify people and places from old photographs and telling my mother “I could do that every day of my life.” What I do is not exactly the same (there are few photos to be identified in math or economics), but the element of discovery that comes with research, which is central to the joy of learning that I try to convey to my students, is very similar.
It was exciting to tell my daughter the story of Sybil Ludington, as she was a smaller, female version of the more famous Paul Revere. Danbury was important for the “Rebels” of the colonial era as it housed food and other supplies for their armies. This made it a target for the British, who came into town and took some of these supplies and burned them in the streets, as well as burning some of the homes in the town. When Sybil learned of what was happening, she set out to warn the others. She rode a horse to summon the Continental Army to defend the small town, which they did, resulting in a battle in another small town only a stone’s throw from Danbury.
It is sometimes hard to find strong female role-models for my daughter, so it was wonderful to be able to tell her the story of this young girl who was able to make an important contribution to the creation of what was to become our country. It is good to plant the seed in her young mind that, sometimes, the best man for a job can be a (young) woman.