We Need to Learn More About Women in School—Here's Why

When I, alongside my U.S. history class, opened up our test booklets during the 2016 AP exam to see that the essay question asked about the second-wave women’s rights movement, audible groans and hushed cusses were thrown around the room. During the two years of prepping for the exam, our teacher had barely touched on feminism.

I can distinctly remember my history teacher simply telling my class, “In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified and women gained the right to vote.” This was all we learned about the U.S. women’s suffrage movement.

Teachers may mention Susan B. Anthony’s name in passing, but I never truly learned about her in school. Despite the fact that she was the keystone of the start of the overall women’s rights movement, I had to look her up on Wikipedia to actually learn about her.

Credit: Femalista

Throughout our education in America, teachers have often skimmed over women's role in history and have hardly mentioned prominent female figures. This practice has resulted in a society of people uneducated in women’s history.

“The very fact that you put the word ‘women’ in front of ‘history’ suggests that we already have certain assumptions as to what history is – that it’s the wars, it’s who’s the king, it’s how things are legislated. Until quite recently, women were excluded from all of this,” said Barbara Gottfried, a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies professor at Boston University.

Women have been excluded from the narrative of history for so long, partly because men have been the ones writing textbooks and deciding the curriculums. Men weren’t interested in what women were doing – their pivotal roles in science, human rights, and literature.

Regarding town’s K-12 curriculums, Gottfried said, “If you have powerful women on a school board who insist that women be visible, you might have a very different-looking curriculum.”

Credit: Jolien Brands

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been asking my friends about their experiences learning about women in school. I can sum up their answers with one answer: “Everything was very broad and general.” Some of my friends also commented on how they never learned about the women’s rights movement but did learn about some prominent female figures, such as Sacagawea and Amelia Earhart.

But the number of historical women we learn about does not begin to compare to the prominence of men throughout our education. Taking a couple of women from history is more convenient than completely rewriting textbooks, but as Gottfried said, these common female figures “are heroic in male terms.” Women, such as Amelia Earhart, are only praised for doing a traditionally male job better than a man can.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, women comprised 56 percent of U.S. college students in 2017 – the reverse of the situation decades ago. Despite men being the general minority, education on women is still lacking in college courses.

In my history of journalism class this fall, I was expected to teach myself about Susan B. Anthony and the role of journalism in the women’s suffrage movement through assigned at-home readings. My professor never lectured on this crucial part of history and only taught us about a couple of female journalists now and then.

Roberta Micallef, a BU professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, brought up how great it is that her department exists so women’s history can be the central topic. Still, she said, “We also need to become part of the more general conversation instead of a specialized place.”

Gottfried agreed with this idea. “Women’s history should be integral so it doesn’t have to be marked. When we study American history, we should be looking all along, equally at genders and races and so on,” she said.

Although the American education system disappoints its students in regards to women’s history, the media have picked up the slack. For example, Micallef brought up the significance of the 2016 movie, Hidden Figures, which taught its viewers about the African-American women at NASA, such as Katherine Johnson, who helped launch men into space.

Credit: The Lyric Theatre

“Now that popular culture is addressing [women’s history] and it’s becoming more part of everyday consciousness, it will also filter into K-12,” said Micallef with a hopeful spirit.

Countless studies have shown that when puberty hits, girls start to lose their self-confidence. This change can then negatively affect women economically and equality-wise later in life, pressing them into lesser paying, traditionally female jobs.

But there’s an answer to this problem — education. “Education is part of the solution to many social ills. The home and the school have to work together to change the way young girls and women see themselves,” Micallef said.

If schools were to integrate women’s history into their curriculum and reduce the extreme prominence of men, we could see a change in America for the better. Just having a quick unit on the women’s rights movement or a homework assignment on Susan B. Anthony won’t suffice. We need women to equally be a part of the curriculum as men.

The excuse that “it was a different time” and “women just weren’t making history” cannot stand anymore. We have been learning history through the male lens for too long. We need to learn about women, no matter how unimportant men once deemed them.

Credit: Alexandra Kallfelz

Instead of girls learning a distorted and incomplete women’s history from their mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and Wikipedia, everyone should receive a gender-equal education.

The change shouldn’t just be in history class either. According to Gottfried, “This has to be integrated from day one. From the first grade on, when you’re reading stories, there should be an equal number of stories written by women, about girls, including girls… girls should be major characters.”

 

Women can no longer be absent from the classroom — they need to be present.

 

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