This post has been a long time coming as I struggled to find the right tone and direction for the anger I felt over the very public silencing of Elizabeth Warren a few weeks back. As Women’s History month approached and murmurs of the March 8th protest gained momentum, I began to think about why society has not been able to change its perception of women, which finally gave shape to this post. Like many children, I learned about Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harriet Tubman, and Abigail Adams. I learned that these women were brave and smart in a time when most women were not taught to read or write; in a time when women were married off and expected to raise children and tend to the household. At best, I learned that women in different economic positions had slightly different freedoms. My history lessons did not address women beyond this broad stroke that made them secondary characters in history. I think it’s time we start making them leading characters.
Silencing women is an old story. One that I am particularly bored of witnessing. Over the years I have come to admire many women who have stood at the forefront of political and social issues. At an early age I was given a coffee table book of women who shaped American history. You could say this has been a life-long study and appreciation. When Elizabeth Warren was silenced by an archaic Senate rule, the wave of exhaustion hit and it hit hard. Not only was it voted on, but an appeal was also voted down. At two different times Senate members had the chance to think about what they were about to say to the public, and twice they failed to stop and reflect on how this symbolized years and years of fighting to make women’s voices heard. Mitch McConnell was quoted, “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Little did he know that he had just created a battle cry and a proud slogan that I hope reflects everything I will accomplish in life.
Reactions to this event were overwhelming. A number of people spent hours tweeting out the names of incredible women. Women who changed science. Women who led political movements. Women who ran/run governments. Women of color who have changed the world. Women leading the way in LGBTQ communities. Platforms like twitter were inundated with names that very few of us probably remember learning about in our history classes. But is this the part of the problem?
There are many women I admire. Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama and her daughters, Elizabeth I, Angela Merkel, Artemesia Gentileschi, the incredibly brave woman who held Brock Turner accountable, Jane Austen, Dorothy Vaughn, Eleanor Roosevelt, Coco Chanel, Ida B. Wells, Marie Curie, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ellen DeGeneres, and the list could go on and on and on. I admire the amazing women in my everyday life as well. From my mother who has worked in law enforcement for years and has persisted in a male dominated field. To my sister who walks into physical tests that are overwhelmingly male and kicks ass while also dealing with a social culture that shrugs off men commenting on or grabbing her ass. To my friends who are conquering engineering PhD programs, tackling NYC, and getting married and becoming amazing mothers. And finally, to my little nieces tackling speech and sleeping through the night, who deserve a world that sees them as valuable individuals and a world that teaches them about women. Not just the Hilary’s and the Maya’s and the Coco’s, but the moms and the sisters and the wives and the daughters.
How can we change up our history lessons? For the better part of our education, K-12, we learn about important people, battles, movements, etc…but we do not have a chance to examine gender, gender stereotypes, and/or continuing injustices that we tackle today. It is not until college that we really have the opportunity to explore these ideas in an academic setting and even then it is entirely up to us to take that gender studies course or be a women’s studies major/minor. This is part of the problem. It should be embedded in curriculum across the board. How can we expect to have equality when we teach history with the words “she was very ahead of her time” or “this was not the usual role for a woman”? Okay then what was?! And why was it that way?
Maureen Costello submitted a wonderful and quick read back in 2010 (though its relevance continues as evidenced by its republishing in 2016), to Teaching Tolerance. In “The Trouble with Women’s History Month”, Costello addresses the problem of teaching women’s history as a series of incredible women who have done amazing things. In doing so she argues that students have a false sense of finality.
“But history is more than biography. Highlighting a few noteworthy women in March (or blacks in February or Latinos in October) can lead students to think that the exception proves the rule: These dozen or so ladies really stood out, but the rest? Forgettable.”
We need to teach history in a way that goes far beyond the name of a person. So how do we do this? We shake up the narrative. Let’s talk about the Land Girls. The NASA computers. The midwives. The teachers. Let’s teach them about the cooking, canning, preserving, smoking, and daily chores given to women. How in times of war women were integral as head of households, nurses, and relief aids. How they developed the textile and fashion industry long before men made it commercial. Ask students to talk about the women they admire. Celebrate their friends, their grandmothers, sisters, mothers, or any woman in their life who matters to them. Help them understand how women have shaped and continue to shape society. Do not talk about the roles of women in society in a way that pigeon-holes women. They were not just homemakers. They cooked without the internet giving them easily accessible recipes. They preserved food and learned to provision it to last through to the next harvest. They bore and raised children without hospitals and modern medicine. They mended clothing and re-purposed outgrown clothing into new attire. Help students see the strength and accomplishments of every woman throughout history. Start using words like brave, strong, creative, hard-working, intelligent, and important. Show them how valuable women were and are.
Let’s stop saying incredible women were the exception to the rule. Instead take a page out of McConnell’s book and say they persisted. Focus on that phrase. Consider changing up your curriculum. Consider the ideas you may be inadvertently presenting to your students through your lesson plans when you talk about the role of women in a particular era. Check out some of these resources and help write women back into history as more than landmark figures who were 1 in a 1,000,000. Represent the other 999,999. Help write us into the narrative as leading figures rather than supporting characters. Celebrate women’s contributions big and small. Represent them in everything you teach. And finally teach your students about women in October and February and May, not just March.
Just to keep this from being completely hypothetical (or preachy) I will add that much of this thinking has also influenced the way I think about a Fall 2017 course called Documentary Archives and Activism that I will collaboratively structure and support with faculty and librarians. The inspiration for the course was born out of the Women’s March and will therefore really think about documenting women and telling their stories. As I think about the digital tools and media we will be using, I must consider the impact those tool have on women’s history and identify any shortcomings or problems they may cause. We have to find a way to use the tools to document and share as many voices as we can without over generalizing or categorizing unique perspectives however similar they may be. This is the challenge that we all face and must tackle if we want to start righting the gender inequalities that are embedded in history as “the way things were.” Stay tuned for details about the course…
Primary sources: Library of Congress Her Story Middle Tennessee State University American Women’s History: A Research Guide World War II Brown University What Did You Do In The War Grandma? oral histories Ain’t I A Woman? Sojourner Truth Redstocking’s Manifesto