Where are all the women in the children’s history books?


March is Women’s History Month, which has meant that for the past few weeks, education-focused websites have been teeming with lesson plans and ideas for teaching children about women in history.

What happens in children’s history books the other 11 months of the year, when women are not the center of attention, is another story, the data shows.

About one woman for every three men is mentioned in the social studies or state history standards in place in 2017, according to an analysis by Smithsonian magazine.

Keep in mind that Women’s History Month, declared each March by a presidential proclamation, began as an effort by five women, mostly female teachers, to “broadcast the historic achievements of women.”

The leader of the five women, Molly MacGregor, was a 24-year-old high school history teacher in Santa Rosa, Calif., In 1972 when she couldn’t find an answer in the textbooks to answer her question. ‘a student on the women’s movement.

“We were trying to tell stories that at that time very few people knew or remembered,” MacGregor told the Los Angeles Times of the efforts she and her colleagues made to “re-enroll women in the world. ‘story”.

How women are represented – and not represented – in the history books

Smithsonian magazine’s analysis of women in history builds on a 2017 report from the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) that examined school social studies standards for each state and in Washington, DC

The authors of the report entered each standard that referred to a woman or a subject associated with women into a database. Researchers looked at state standards, set by each state’s education department, as the United States does not have common standards for social studies or history, according to the museum.

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The purpose of the report was not to examine how the history of women was covered, but how women are included in the history taught to children.

In one example, topics relating to women are often included as an “addendum to the main storyline” and addressed as a group, according to the report.

“This method fails to take into account that all groups, whether the powerful elite or those marginalized by economy, race or culture, also include women,” the authors wrote. . “Factors other than gender are often more important to a woman’s perspective or the basis for her actions. Women have never acted as a unified group. “

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In another example, the curriculum standards use a timeline of wars and economic and political decisions that were primarily made by men because women were sidelined due to the laws and culture of the country. era.

“As long as the history curriculum follows the traditional timeline, the study of women’s experiences is subject to marginalization,” the authors concluded.

Sarah Drake Brown, Ph.D., chair of the board of directors of the National Council for History Education, who was not involved in the report, echoes the belief that women’s history does has “never meant more than one thing” in any historical period in the United States or the world.

“We need to help students think about how race, ethnicity, religion and class may intersect in the lives of women at different times and in different places,” said Drake Brown, also an associate professor. history at Ball State University. “It’s not about ‘integrating women into’ mainstream narratives; it’s about broadening students’ understanding to help them reflect on the diverse experiences and perspectives of women.”

The NWHM report found that women’s domestic roles are often “overemphasized” in historical norms.

Women’s history is most studied at the elementary school level, as this is when students learn “daily life and family life” in history, according to the report. Fifty-three percent of mentions in women’s history are in the context of family and domestic roles.

In contrast, women’s suffrage and women’s rights account for 20 percent of the mentions.

“When I was young, women weren’t very well represented, so I didn’t really know my full potential. I just didn’t see it, “said Sasha Bonner, who dressed up her daughter as powerful African-American women, at” GMA “in February.” I grew up thinking Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth were the one. same person because I learned of their existence. at the same time on the same day during Black History Month. “

Filling in the “herstory” gaps

When school standards do not require that women be fully included in history, it is up to teachers to make the effort and other organizations, such as the National Women’s History Museum, to provide the resources.

“Educators want to fill in the details when they teach, not just sprinkle with recognizable names,” said Colin Sharkey, executive director of the Association of American Educators, which promotes itself as the nation’s largest, non-union professional educator. organization. “They really want to help a student feel what women would have felt in this society.”

“There is a feeling that the way we teach history is incomplete, and women’s history is a major example of what is still missing,” he said.

The National Women’s History Museum launched its 2017 Social Studies Standards Study because it wanted to improve the “relevance and usefulness” of the resources on women in history that it provides online to teachers and to students.

Scholastic, which says it sells about one in two children’s books bought in the United States, also has resources on its website that, again, teachers must use outside of their classroom time to use them.

“It’s always on the minds of our Scholastic Magazine editors to infuse diverse voices into all of our fiction and non-fiction content,” said Lauren Tarshis, senior vice president and editor / publisher. from Scholastic Magazines, to “GMA”. “Throughout the year of publication, our titles feature inspiring women and girls to ensure our young readers see the powerful role women play both historically and today.

More advanced technology is also emerging to help women remember in history books. An augmented reality app, “Lessons in Herstory,” which debuted this year at South by Southwest, unlocks the story of an important female historical figure when digitized onto an image of a male historical figure in a popular textbook, “A History of US, Book 5: Liberty for All? 1820–1860.”

Drake Brown of the National Council for History Education said the council and other organizations like this, as well as public history sites, are working together to “help teachers use more inclusive material. and which helps students better understand what women’s history is. . “

What takes so long to complete women’s history?

Even with the online resources available, it is still up to the desire, will and availability of every teacher – in addition to their pre-existing workload – to sort everything out and incorporate a precise representation of women in the story. in their curriculum. .

Textbook companies can take years, or, in the case of women in history, decades to redo what is taught in history books.

Research shared as early as the 1970s showed how in American high school history textbooks, “women are rarely shown fighting for anything; their rights have been “given” to them and the authors of the book “select male leaders and cite male spokespersons.” “

Even in texts that had been updated at the time to reflect black history, they had not “made room for the black woman,” the research found.

If the textbooks are updated, the middle school does not receive a new set of textbooks every year, according to Sharkey, executive director of AAE.

State standards that do not fully reflect the role of women in history do not help either, as research by NWHM has revealed. Another conflict is the idea that if more story about women goes in a book, something else has to come out of it.

“All story projects require choices. Including one person or event excludes another,” wrote the authors of the NWHM report. “Women often don’t make the cut.”

Sharkey said her organization has discovered that TV shows and movies are often the most effective tools with which teachers come to teach about the role of women in history. Recent films like “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of three African American women at NASA, and “Confirmation,” which tells the story of Anita Hill, are among the Hollywood projects that have shed new light on women.

“A period series like ‘Downton Abbey’ that exists that reveals a certain slice of history at that time is quickly generating a lot of content and most of it is free and it’s popular and topical, so teachers don’t have as much of a challenge to present it to children, ”explained Sharkey.


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