‘We have an obligation to correct this’: Behind the growing movement to add more women to history lessons

The famous Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With” depicts 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, who is Black, on her way to an all-White public school in 1960 New Orleans. Facing a threat of violence from unpictured White protesters, Bridges is escorted by four U.S. marshals for protection. In the background, racist graffiti and smashed tomatoes line the wall.

When social studies teachers show this image to their classes, they say interpretations can vary.

“Some will focus on these White men protecting her,” said Robert Austin, the social studies specialist at Utah’s State Board of Education. “Other students will say: ‘Wow, look at Ruby’s courage. Look how she persevered against all odds.’”

This discrepancy, Austin said, depends on a student’s ingrained perception of what those of a certain gender, race or socioeconomic class are capable of doing. And expanding this perception, which in turn dictates how students view their own potential, largely falls on the role of the educator: “Teachers are hungry for resources that enlarge and diversify the story of history,” he said.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave White women the right to vote. This, paired with the killing of George Floyd in police custody and subsequent nationwide protests, is provoking a reassessment of institutional diversity and inclusion standards across the nation.

“Having a role model with similar characteristics allows students to feel like they can do important things,” said Daphna Oyserman, a professor of education and psychology at the University of Southern California who published a book on the topic in 2015. “If there isn’t anybody who looks like you in some meaningful way in roles of leadership or having some sort of success, kids will think: ‘Who am I kidding? People like me can’t do this.’”

Still, research shows that women’s stories make up only 0.5 percent of recorded history. A report by the National Women’s History Museum says that the status and experiences of women are “not well integrated into U.S. state history standards,” and criticizes an overemphasis on women’s domestic roles and the exclusion of women’s roles in leadership.

But this year has seen a new wave of activism to bring lesser-known women’s stories into history and social studies education curriculums.

Washington state’s program, Ahead of the Curve, provides lesson plans for social studies classes highlighting the state’s pioneering women in history. In Oregon, the League of Women Voters launched the Teacher’s Guide to Civics Education, a comprehensive lesson plan focused on women’s suffrage history to show students the importance of voting. Tennessee, Indiana, Massachusetts and Kentucky have launched similar programs focused on exposing students to prominent but lesser-known women from their states.

“It is absolutely necessary to have curricula that’s inclusive of all student groups,” said Morgan Polikoff, an associate professor of education at the University of Southern California. “Reform starts with the next generation. This is how we promote systemic change.”

“Wanting diverse perspectives is so much more on people’s radar,” said Liz Wallace, the editorial director at Gibbs Smith Education, a history and social studies textbook publisher.

In Utah, which also celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first vote cast by a woman this year, the effort has been particularly significant. In 2017, the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Better Days 2020, which draws upon the two anniversaries to popularize women’s history in education, partnered with the State Board of Education to create and develop history lessons that promote women’s stories, particularly those of women of color. The group also successfully lobbied Gibbs Smith to add several women’s stories into the new edition of the social studies textbook.

“Growing up, I wasn’t even aware of Utah’s role in the suffrage movement,” said Naomi Watkins, the group’s education director. Watkins recalls reading biographies of American women she had scrounged up in her local library when she was young. Once she finished that limited selection of books, she remembers thinking: “Now what?”

Despite the state’s prominent role in women’s suffrage, the need for gender-inclusivity reform in Utah is especially dire. For the third year in a row, Utah came up last in a study ranking each state for women’s equality, based on markers like income disparity, political representation, leadership roles and unemployment.

“We have an obligation to correct this,” Austin said. “Teachers want to make sure students are engaged, and the way they become engaged is by seeing their own stories in the lessons taught. It’s a constant struggle for representation.”

The push to add diverse and underrepresented voices to history and social studies education is not new. In the 1970s, following groundbreaking research that displayed how underrepresented women were in U.S. history textbooks, publishers printed guidelines on how to publish more gender-inclusive material. At the same time, universities began to heavily fund women’s studies programs, and Congress passed the Women’s Educational Equity Act.

“I saw my students, particularly the girls, transform through these lessons,” said Mackenzie McFadden, a teacher at Burch Creek Elementary in Ogden, Utah, who is one of the 1,000 teachers who completed a training to help elementary and middle school educators incorporate female-focused lessons. “The empowerment that comes from simply learning about important women in history has been incredible.”

Some doubt the need for this type of reform, questioning its relevance now that girls outperform boys in academic settings. But Oyserman, the education researcher and psychologist, emphasized that inclusivity goes far beyond academic performance. Although girls thrive in academic settings, gender discrepancies still very much exist when it comes to leadership: Women make up less than 25 percent of Congress and 7.4 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives. And still, over half a century after the Supreme Court passed the Equal Pay Act, women on average make only 82 cents on the dollar compared with White men. (On average, Black women make 62 cents on the dollar compared with White men, and Latinas make 54 cents.)

“When we switch from the academic setting to the workforce, the men who were underperforming all along suddenly turn into the stars,” Oyserman said.

Austin says this is only the beginning of the work.

“We’re shifting our idea of what history education really means.”

This article is part of a reporting effort by GroundTruth on voting rights in America, with support from the Jesse and Betsy Fink Charitable Fund, the Solutions Journalism Network and the MacArthur Foundation.

A version of this story appeared on THE LILY on September 4, 2020

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