Why Are Women Still Absent from History Curricula?

Why Are Women Still Absent from History Curricula? by Adina Gerwin - photo by Danielle Deculus

The exclusion of women from history curricula harms all students regardless of gender.

For example, in my ninth grade history class, we only heard about three women (Abigail Adams, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Marie Antoinette). My teacher mentioned each woman in one part of one class period. We never wrote anything about them, we were not tested on them, and we did not use any of them to engage in larger conversations about the changing roles of women in the history we studied. Moreover, when we studied the French Revolution, we only read the Declaration of the Rights of Man despite the existence of a famous Declaration of the Rights of Women. When I asked my teacher about it later, he simply responded, “we did not have time.”

This is the attitude so many educators seem to have. It’s extremely unfortunate that it requires the explanation that women are 51 percent of the population and therefore must appear in the curriculum. Judgments teachers make about historical significance cannot only rest upon the titles people held or large-scale events. Instead, they must attend to the experiences of and actions which the female half of the human species does as well. For the past few years, I have engaged various teachers and department heads at my high school, demanding they include women in the curriculum. I have written emails, using similar language to this, outlining why it’s not OK to just focus on men and their great deeds.

While men often had a monopoly on titles and are generally the leading “historical figures,” there is more to history than just studying the male leaders. A curriculum that omits and does not have “time for women,” paints a dangerous picture that women rarely influenced daily life, big events, or anything of historical significance. In fact, when I raised this issue in class one day, a male classmate declared that women did not deserve to be taught about; he said that as a result of them lacking titles, they did not impact any of the significant events worth learning about. Needless to say, this is simply untrue.

The following year, the standard history curriculum was somewhat better, but it was only in an elective honors history seminar specifically about gender and class that I was able to really spend time learning about women’s struggles and lives. In this class, we examined essential secondary literature from the past 200 years, often using historiographical texts. Unfortunately, most of the authors of those texts are men, making it clear that they are and have been shaping the documented history, pedagogy, and subsequent narrative.

People will record the name of Kamala Harris as the first female vice president, but will they write—and, more importantly, teach—about the struggles it took for her to get there? Or they will mention the historic 2020 Senate campaigns of Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia who flipped the state “blue,” but omit the essential and critical work former candidate Stacey Abrams did years in advance to produce those results? We cannot let curriculum keepers exclude Abrams from the historical elections in Georgia. Nor can we allow them to exclude other female narratives, including those about daily life such as motherhood, reproductive choices, health, or family structures.

This women’s history month, I ask everyone to pay attention in your classes, notice if and how women are portrayed in their studies, and then say something about it to your school teachers and administrators. We all have a right to shape and be included in the narrative, and we must protect that right for ourselves and for the future generations of young female leaders.

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