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.
Sitting at the café, I found myself highlighting and tabbing frantically. It was almost overwhelming. Not realizing what I was reading and perhaps reacting to the pink “Feminist” shirt I was wearing, a friend I discuss history with regularly walked out and, in his patronizing, but entirely jovial tone, said, “You know…” I glanced up from my book, “It’s dangerous for a woman to read.” Annoyed, I laughed and went back to reading, the universal social cue for “I’m busy,” and a normalized reaction to passive-sexism disguised as a joke. Kindly, he obliged, reading the signs of my sticky notes, highlighters, and posture engrossed in the books.
I like to have several books going and had found myself going back and forth between these two books since school let out in June. I was around chapters three or four when I looked up from the page. Whatever the particular page was about I don’t remember. I was struck by a sickening feeling, “Why have I never heard this?” I knew generally about some women, but nothing this comprehensive. No American history book I’d read actually discussed things like how women dealt with birth and menstruation before medical advances, what women did in their separate sphere other than domestic duties, and the role women played in setting societal standards. Never had I seen such detailed accounts of extraordinary women. I knew many women mentioned in her book, but for everyone I knew well, she threw in two more I’d never even heard of.
I am certainly not an expert in history, I like to tell my world history students, “I don’t know everything that ever happened,” but I have spent the better part of the last decade studying these the subjects. Further, I am a feminist, who has always found herself drawn to women’s topics and outstanding women in history. And more importantly, I am a history teacher! Of all the people I know, besides my history professors, who else is more likely to know this information? Certainly, I concluded, none of my peers, who are also mostly college graduates and academics. Staring blankly across the street into the local park, I found myself perplexed. How can I have gotten to this point and not know this information?
When I entered my teaching career, I was incredibly qualified. I had a bachelors in political science and a masters in social studies education. I had minors in Asian Studies and Theater, and was one class shy of a history minor in undergrad. I had won awards, traveled abroad, taught outdoor education, run the state-wide history competition, and worked for a museum. Few 25-year-old first year teachers could be more qualified. I came in hot. I was ready to change the backward profession that lacked diverse instructional practices, did not accommodate special education students, failed to teach minority histories and diverse perspectives. I was ready to tear it down.
My first three years of teaching were exhausting, unsustainable, and draining. I put in easily 60 hours a week. I spent most of that time doing research and growing my own understanding of my subjects. I had heard a theory that the quality of a teacher plateaus at their third year, so as I entered my fourth year of teaching I wondered when I would feel confident in my subject area? When would I start to feel like a senior teacher? I slowly began to realize that I didn’t know or have the skills I needed to do what it was I set out to do. I was the teacher I had set out to dismantle. How did this happen?
I’m a pretty ambitious secondary high school history teacher. I am passionate about social, political, and economic equality for women of all races, and sexualities. If anyone should be giving women fair representation in the history classroom, it’s me. And yet, I look back at my lessons and feel they are inadequate to address, and provide context to, the complex issues that women face and have faced everyday. Why are they inadequate? Is it the culture? Is it the school? Is it me?
In a time when education is underfunded and politicians are using terms like “underachieving,” “failing,” and trying to expand the number of charter and private schools, I can’t complain: I work in one of the best public schools in the nation. The school values social studies and puts trust in me to stay up-to-date with current literature on best practice in my subject. When I’ve spoken with my principal about how to give women a more accurate representation in the curriculum, I’ve gotten full support. My school is well funded, but economically below average in the state, with many students on free-and-reduced lunch. The class sizes are small with twelve or so students in an average class. The superintendent office is down the hall and I work in one of the rare secondary schools where our superintendent is female. The school is supportive of pretty much every initiative I try and willing to invest money into it. My principal is a former social studies teachers who regularly has my back on curriculum development, and is willing to go to bat for me. The community in general is supportive of the school and parents are relatively engaged. My situation is ideal, and is yet the root cause of my constant anxiety: I have absolutely no excuse to not “do it right.”
With no excuse to fall on, the problem then must be me. But how can that be? I am a highly qualified teacher and, on paper at least, I look pretty good. I earned my Masters in Social Studies Education, I got my first choice job out of graduate school. In my first few years I earned four professional awards at the state level, including NHD Teacher of the Year. In 2018, I was one of my lessons on Mercy Otis Warren was published by the HISTORY Channel. I have succeeded in holding high expectations while scaffolding to allow every student the potential for success. My AP history students consistently get scores that earn college credit and are above the national average.
And yet, in my years on the job, vigorously attacking traditional education on the ground, I know I’ve come up short. My classes, while they involve the voices of minorities and women, certainly leave my students with the impression that the experiences of women and minorities are separate and combative to the history of white males and after my new exposure to the contributions of women, I know I don’t include enough of their voices. In some lessons I guide students through discussions on the challenge of black or minority protest, and the ways that great and every day civil rights leaders advocated for their rights; including discussion on those initiatives that were most successful. I constantly struggle with what to include, and given my region eliminate topics that are less relevant to my students. I have days where I expertly introduce women from history and highlight their achievements in their context, but again have to pick and choose what women to highlight. This picking and choosing leads me to pick women that help highlight contentious topics that reflect current debates. I haven’t taught history the way I know it should or could be taught. I don’t have quite as many external forces to blame as other teachers do, and thus there is a constant guilt and this nagging question: If I can’t do it in my incredible circumstances, how can anyone else?
This question has driven me to this point. There are many that would look at this problem and blame the public school system. While the “system” certainly could be at play, the problem is much bigger. A piece of my personal challenge is that my social studies education was inadequate. And before advocates start harping on the failures of public education, I’d like to note that my social studies education led me into a highly successful undergraduate education at a private school and to one of the best private graduate teacher programs in the state. Certainly I would love more preparation periods and better pay, but have learned to accept my job as a service to my community, and I certainly don’t blame the school system. Given my relative talent and unbelievable privilege of working where I do: what are my barriers to proper history education?
Certainly my graduate program in Social Studies Education prepared me? Every teacher knows that theory is all well and good until you’re in a classroom. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for that bar, it’s just that every first year teacher has that frazzled moment where they realize being a good teacher is a lot harder than they thought it would be. In social studies we have a compounded problem in that we are being asked to teach topics and utilizing methodologies few of us have ever experienced. Despite my efforts to avoid it, I regularly default to how I was taught: lecture. And I’m all in for diversifying the sources and topics, but could you first tell me the name of a couple women and minority leaders? I spent the first year I taught Googling lists like “top 10 people in US History.” I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard the name Sojourner Truth. I scrounged the Internet and libraries, and ploughed through books recommended by my graduate professors. There were great resources online from Stanford, Brown, the Library of Congress, and several humanities organizations that provided me with primary source analysis activities, which I then emulated when I found other topics not discussed. All said and done, it wasn’t horrible. Compared to my predecessors, I patted myself on the back. I could say students “did history” and learned about marginalized groups more than I had.
Over the next few years I read more books, improved the curriculum and added more and more voices to the mix. In a step toward progress, women were mentioned in my classroom, but there was a gaping problem: women were only discussed when it came to women’s issues: temperance, suffrage, feminism. But, where were women in war, economics, and politics? Were they oblivious? And why were women only mentioned when they converged into the male realms? Why don’t we mention the piece of history that has impacted all of us: childbirth and childrearing? Surely these two topics have their own history?
I then began diving into dense histories by women about women and the impact was staggering. It was as if I had never truly been taught history. I felt cheated. There I had been clinging to the scraps of women’s history in passing comments in the male narrative, when in reality there was a rich, dense world of women that I never knew existed.
Around this time I joined a book club with some women in my area, our first few books were all historical fictions, which led to some wonderful discussion of women’s history. One phrase we said over and over: I had no idea that this even happened, or I never learned about her in school. Almost all of them had said they disliked history until they read these simple narratives about real women who lived and experienced the same events we had learned about in school. I learned something else: I wasn’t alone. Most of the women in the book club had masters degrees and had never heard of the Grimke sisters, the women in the French Resistance, matriarchies in South Africa, and so on. When I began to compile this work, I did some searching on Amazon and Apple Podcast for “Women’s History” and found no results. Today there are a myriad of films, books, and podcasts that attempt to bring to light wonderful forgotten women.
I spent years building minority voices into my curriculum, but the way I taught about women turned them into a subtopic, rather than a part of the normal narrative. Women were only discussed in reference to suffrage and feminist movements. When I turned to labor unions, I focused in on Eugene Debs and Samuel Gompers. Who were the leaders of female labor unions? WWII affected almost everyone. How is it that almost all of the sources I have students read from that period are from or about men? I give myself props for carving out time to discuss the Tuskegee Airmen, but what about their mothers and wives? Black nurses, secretaries, Rosies, and WACS?
I know that incredible women are there in our world’s history and it is the work of our generation to bring their stories to light. It is the work of the social studies educator to bring them into the classroom. And there we face many barriers both historical, pedagogical, and social. Stumbling in the dark, I started to redo my education and my curriculum. I found the truth about women in history and became familiar with the women who should have been my childhood heroes. I learned about the ways I had been misled in my understanding of my female ancestors and began a journey to break the cycle of improper history instruction.
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.