If women were equal, they would be seen, heard, and their stories would be told equally. As of 2020, women make up 7 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 6 percent of Nobel Prize Winners, and only 24 percent of “heard, read about or seen in newspaper, television and radio.” Women reported 37 percent of news stories and this trend is also true in the “democratized” digital media. In film, women represent 31 percent of speaking characters, 23 percent of protagonists, and 21 percent are filmmakers. In sport, “Despite progress, women still continue to be excluded… and are paid far less than men in wages and prize money globally.” Their self-expression, ideas, and personhood remain visible at fractions of the men’s, why?
To get women into the history curriculum faces systemic barriers at present, but it also faces barriers from the past, mainly that women’s voices, works, and ideas are harder to know than those of men. Dr. Bettany Hughes suggested that only 0.5% of history is written about women. Historian, Aparna Basu proclaimed, “The only women who found a place in traditional history text books were either women who successfully performed male roles or whom great men loved.” It is no wonder that teachers teach his-story… it’s the only one out there!
History was written largely by men and about men. Even when women wrote histories, they wrote about men. The field of history focused on politics, diplomacy, business, and the military: the essential absence of women in these areas would have made a women’s history impossible. The relatively new desire to write social history from the bottom up created space for a branch of history about women and the opportunity to find the voices of women from the past.
First, teaching pre-history and contrasting the study of it with the study of history helps students understand what we mean when we say "history" verses other studies into the past. History is what mankind wrote about itself, whereas archaeology is what remains intentionally or unintentionally from humans of the past.
Second, 95 percent of human history occurred during what we call the hunter-gatherer period. Zooming out to examine history in this context gives us a humbling realization of how small we are and how limited our understanding of the past really is. One of the things we know about this period is that the small bands of people who traversed the earth were far more egalitarian than their “civilized” relatives because they had to be.
In my secondary history classroom, I always start the year with the question, “What is history?” On the surface this is a straightforward question. Most students respond, “the study of the past.” But what is the past? When an event happens to all people agree on how it played out? History was once current events. How many different perspectives are there in current events? The same is true in history. Is it possible to know what truly happened or what it felt like to be there? There could be as many histories as there are human witnesses. History has been written by victors, suppressing the story of the losers, therefore it has not been a truthful account of what happened, but rather the dominating account. History is also the study of the written record. Given that most of human history women were overwhelmingly illiterate, denied opportunities to record or publish, the method of historical knowing, denies women a space. Most importantly, history puts emphasis on spheres of public life that women were barred from: politics, economics, and the military. If emphasis were put on the family, medicine, and food, women would dominate history. The choice of emphasis is fundamentally exclusive of women. Good history is derived consensus of what happened based on evidence. And, as more evidence comes forward, the history changes. History is a moving target. It is alive. It is ever changing.
In 1985 a woman named Alison Bechdel wrote a comic strip satirizing how few women appear as major characters, and appear to have lives, in movies. The immediate result was something nicknamed the Feminist Movie Test, or the Bechdel Test. Here it is: a film has to have at least two, named women in it, who talk to each other at some point, about something besides a man . That’s it: two women who exist and talk about stuff. The bar for feminism in film is barely off the ground and yet sadly few films pass the test. Every one of my favorites failed miserably. When I first learned about the test, the only film I showed in my history courses that passed the test was Iron Jawed Angels, a film about women’s suffrage. Thankfully today there are more options for history teachers.
I was sitting in the sun outside my favorite coffee shop on Main Street, the awning providing just enough shade from the summer heat. I had, like I usually do, my books splayed out over the small circular coffee street table, dubiously balancing on the uneven sidewalk. Every once and a while a breeze would catch on the tall shops that lined the road and whip down, sending my pages, labels, notes scribbled on scrap paper into momentary chaos.
Summer, for public school social studies teachers is time to both rejuvenate through relaxation and outdoor activity and hone our craft. For me, this has meant reading. I teach at a small school, so in my short time I’ve taught every subject we offer in the social studies. Needless to say, there is always more I can learn to bring to my classroom. I usually pick one book for each subject and then a couple for fun.
On this particular summer day, I was diving into two new books on world and US history: America’s Women by Gail Collins, and A Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles. These books were the first survey’s in women’s history, which was strange because I teach history and have already read substantially on both US and world history. My friends or family would not find it all surprising that I’d chosen these books to read, and honestly given my interest and numerous thesis papers in both college and graduate school on women’s history, I didn’t think I would glean much from these books. At best I hoped I’d learn about a couple women other than queens, civil rights leaders, and suffragists I didn’t know who had impacted history. I believed, like most people do, that few women had tapped into the glass ceiling and made a mark worthy of a historical footnote.
The history curriculum in schools is insufficient in their representation of women’s contribution to past events. This blog aims to address that. While teachers want to include women’s history, they have not had access to the training, modeling, and resources to do it effectively. Women make up fifty percent of the global population, and yet are in a small fraction of events discussed in school. Women’s choices have been harrowing, infamous, and monumental, and yet their stories are so rarely associated with mainstream history. Ask your average high school graduate, or even college graduate, to name 20 significant men in history and the list flows easily. Ask that same person to name 20 women and the names drag, if they come at all. This case in point leaves us with conclusions like, “women did not do as much” or “women’s stories were not recorded.” These assertions justify our own indifference to the history of half the human race, and could not be further from the truth.