In classrooms throughout the country, the stories of extraordinary women — from Abigail Adams to Carrie Chapman Catt, to Rosa Parks and Dolores Huerta — are taught and celebrated as part of Women’s History Month. The argument for Women’s History Month is that it provides an opportunity for the exploration and celebration of the vital role of women in American history. It’s a compelling argument.
But unless women’s history is integrated throughout the curriculum consistently and authentically, the vitality of women’s participation in U.S. history will be lost on students.
To truly understand American history, diverse women’s stories must be a part of it. Women have always been active participants in American society, and have experiences as complex as the women themselves.
From the white women whose domestic work contributed to the economy during the preindustrial era, to the black women upon whose labor our nation was built, to the immigrant women whose labor fueled industrialization, to the Latina women who organized themselves on farms to advocate for better working conditions, to the countless other women throughout the nation whose work was so frequently unrecognized — teaching how women lived gives voice to their stories. To engage students in history, we must teach them not just how extraordinary women lived, but so too how the people who comprised the majority lived.
Moreover, women’s history must be taught in a way that is dynamic and relevant to students’ lives today. It can give us a lens for viewing and understanding our current society. When we make that connection explicit to students, weaving the past and the present together, students become engaged in ways that are impossible when history remains in the past.
Finally, women’s history must go beyond the retelling of certain popularized narratives to paint a broader, more complex picture. For instance, we focus on the struggle for and passage of the 19th Amendment without talking about the exclusion of black women from the suffrage movement. We teach about the reproductive victory achieved in Roe v. Wade without stressing that women could be fired for being pregnant until 1978 and the passage of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, and that birth control was illegal for all women until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, and illegal for unmarried women for another twelve years after that.
Women’s history can’t be confined to 31 of 365 days. It’s integral to the teaching of American history and must be treated as such by embedding it in the curriculum. In my classes, we discuss the history of women in March — as we do throughout the year. Women’s history is American history.
Where to begin?
Relevance and Engagement
Students love learning about history when they understand how it relates to their lives and to our society today. Those connections are not generally obvious to students, so teachers are obligated to help students bridge the divide between the past and the present. Using current events is a particularly effective way to do so. Two examples of how this could be done are:
- Read an article about democratic women wearing white to Trump’s congressional address and discussing the historical significance of the color white as an introduction to a unit on women’s suffrage.
- Read an article about contemporary working women’s advocacy for the right to unionize as an introduction to a unit on industrialization and the fight for safer, fairer workplaces. I’d use excerpts from Housekeepers vs. Harvard to begin that conversation; however, if you’re looking for a more middle-of-the-road source, you might look to DoubleTree Housekeepers Strike, Rally Attracts Hundreds.
To teach women’s history meaningfully, we must move beyond the textbooks and incorporate more diverse, complex narratives that include women’s own voices. This requires researching and selecting the best sources for each inquiry, which can be time consuming. As you begin this work, be mindful about who is being included and excluded from the stories you select — remembering that representation in your curriculum matters for students. Here are some great starting points:
Three of my favorite texts to use with students as we begin exploring women’s history are:
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, or for younger readers, A Young People’s History of the United States: Columbus to the War on Terror (For Young People Series)
- A Story of American Freedom by Eric Foner
- Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James Loewen
Many great primary sources are available to help you uncover the role women played in American history. Here are two of my favorite collections:
Films are a wonderful way to support the teaching of women’s history.
How do you teach women’s history?