Where Are the Women? Finding Stories in History Beyond State Standards

As a parent, you try to encourage a love for learning in your children. As a parent in the education industry, this takes on an added lens of awareness and access. This year, my fifth grader’s major writing assignment is a biography of a 20th-century person. The task includes finding multiple sources, creating 50 source cards, and writing a multi-page paper. Having a background in women’s studies, naturally I asked her about which woman she would choose. My daughter struggled to start. Based on recent curriculum, I’m not surprised why.

Where Are the Women? A Report on the Status of Women in the United States Social Studies Standards by the National Women’s History Museum offers some clues. State standards drive curriculum and what is taught in classrooms. If a state requires Susan B. Anthony be taught because she is explicitly mentioned in that state’s standards, and if there is a required grade-level assessment in that state, then one can reasonably assume that Susan B. Anthony would be covered in the classroom. However, not all state standards are that explicit. States with broad or high-level standards—or states that focus on skills versus specific content—may allow teachers to cover additional areas of history, greater depth of suggested topics, or allow for student choice.

Scaffolded Curriculum

In social studies, learning is scaffolded from self to world in concentric circles so that a child understands his or her place in the world. Thus, one learns about one’s family, neighborhood, community, state, nation, and world in subsequent years. The role of women may be assumed as part of the larger family structure in primary grades, but in later grades (like fifth grade and beyond), students begin to study the United States and the world with a greater content focus. Thus, it is in Grades 5–12 that students more deeply examine trends, patterns, connections, and differences from our past.  So, it’s not surprising that my daughter didn’t have the content knowledge to build a list of interesting women about whom to write.

Laundry List

The report examines how women are covered in state standards. Some states add women to a list of other examples to ensure coverage. This approach, the report states, can result in a laundry list. “…women’s history is not merely the addition of women’s contributions to the standard history timeline. Women’s history is not just add women and stir.”  

How we organize and compartmentalize history limits us. For example, when I studied English and Irish history, my learning was organized around which prime minister was in office. Similarly, when U.S. history is organized around wars—the American Revolution, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Cold War, and so on—it frames all learning around those most active in that topic. Women, particularly in past centuries, are not prominent participants.

Exceptionalism

Using the American Revolution as an example of how a small group or opinion can change the world, American history uses stories of individuals who stood up, broke away, or followed their own paths to their destiny. For better or worse, American history likes the story of the pioneer, whether physical, mental, or technological. As a result, state standards may include a list of names of individuals who—by their race, class, or gender—are recognized for their individual accomplishments. This sense of accomplishment focuses on the individual achievement versus the collaborative effort and can force an either/or choice of whom to include or not include in their standards. The report lists 178 total women named in state standards: 98 women are mentioned one time, 15 women are mentioned in at least 10 standards, and two women—Molly Pitcher and Rosie the Riveter—are fictional.

Some may recommend that it’s better to cover the collective experience of different groups of women  rather than one woman who was an exception to the rule. For example, Queen Hapshepsut became pharaoh of Egypt after her husband, the pharaoh, died. Queen Hapshepsut ruled with her stepson until she maneuvered herself as the only ruler. Is her story typical of women in Egyptian history? No, not in the slightest. If there are limited numbers of instructional days, do teachers do a disservice to focus on the one versus the many?

Whom to include—or more importantly not include—can be seen as political. Recently, the Texas Tribune reported that the Texas State Board of Education voted to remove, and then reinsert, both Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton in their state social studies standards.

Did I want my daughter to write about a hero? An iconoclast? Someone who made lasting change or someone who had a compelling story? Did I want her to write about an exceptional woman or a woman who happened to be an exception?

Remember the Ladies

As a parent who cares about her child’s education—and as someone who’s worked in history education for more than 20 years—I used my daughter’s hesitation to build a library of names that could inspire her through her years. I started locally, as Chicago’s history is robust with different experiences, particularly as the home of immigrants and migrants:

  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett
  • Bessie Coleman
  • Jane Addams
  • Gwendolyn Brooks

I added to the list women who were pioneers in education, science, and medicine:  

  • Emmy Noether
  • Maria Montessori
  • Hedy Lamarr
  • Sylvia Acevedo
  • Mary Winston Jackson
  • Dr. Virginia Apgar

I was inspired by women of courage, and I hoped their example would reinforce commitment to doing what is right, no matter the difficulty:

  • Rosa Parks
  • Teresa of Calcutta
  • Frances Perkins

I wanted to include names of artists who created something beautifully because it was beautiful:

  • Marian Anderson
  • Emma Lazarus
  • Lotte Reiniger
  • Maya Lin

I wanted to embolden her with women who were larger than life and who seemed, if you could meet them, that they would have a great story to tell:

  • Nellie Bly
  • Lilian Bland
  • Babe Didrikson Zaharias

What inspires me are stories that broaden my understanding of our past. Do stories deepen what I know or show me a new dimension to my knowledge base? One of my favorite opportunities to add to my historical thinking is by listening to the Stuff You Missed in History podcast. The current hosts, Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, are delightful and they continue to present a span of topics that is beyond my interest or knowledge. That is to say, they may present topics about which I’ve never heard. This is exactly what I need because I do not yet know what new topic will inspire me or how it may add to my learning.

I recently listened to the podcast on Mary Winston Jackson, a NASA engineer. I first learned about her through the wonderful movie Hidden Figures, and as I watched, I most identified with the another character, Katherine Johnson. The podcast talks about Mary’s story in a way that adds to what I already know, but it provides detail that a movie couldn’t. Despite not yet having a daughter, Mary Jackson was a local Girl Scout leader and was instrumental in combining the black and white Girl Scout councils into one integrated council. I asked myself, "Why would she do that?" Why was it important for her to spend time outside her very busy life and volunteer for something from which her family couldn’t directly benefit? Mary Winston Jackson’s actions benefitted others, whether mentoring local Girl Scouts or younger women in her NASA career. Pioneering for one’s own dreams and aspirations is admirable—but bringing along others and supporting them as they grow on a different trajectory than yours is remarkable.

Decision Time

Ultimately, my daughter chose Sylvia Acevedo as her biography subject after meeting her at the National Council for Social Studies annual conference. I’m sure my daughter looked at all the professionals at the conference and was trying to figure out why folks stood in line to meet Acevedo, talk to her, and shake her hand. Who is this person and why is she a big deal? In an age of YouTube and Instagram, being well known or famous means something different to today’s generation than earlier generations.

Sylvia Acevedo’s story is remarkable—one that could be lifted from the page of the American self-reliance manual, yet it reflects her place, time, and socioeconomic status so that we understand Acevedo’s story in context with events of the United States. Her bookPath to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist, tells us about her rise from a poor Spanish-speaking Latina to a rocket scientist and Girl Scout CEO. We learn that Acevedo exemplifies grit and growth mindset as she sets herself to master tasks, from math and reading to shooting layups, maintaining her family’s home and car, and earning badges. What I appreciate is her thankfulness for those people and associations who helped her along the way. In addition to her parents, Head Start and the Girls Scouts are two groups she identifies that have shaped her future and changed her life.

Earning badges, reaching her ambitious cookie goal, achieving Journey and Bronze awards, and meeting Sylvia Acevedo should be a lasting memories for my daughter as they connect her story to Acevedo’s story. Once the grade is assigned and the book report tucked away, I hope she keeps the Girl Scouts and Acevedo’s story close to her heart and head and remembers, “don’t walk away…until you’ve heard no three times.” We know how unpredictable life is, and the future doesn’t follow our idealized plans. But with courage, creativity, and determination, my daughter now has a great north star to follow.  

At some point in our lives, we’ve heard or thought, “Girls like you don’t…” and you can fill in the blank. Acevedo’s story inspires us to not let our environment define us, but rather to dream big, set goals, and then achieve our dreams through hard work, tenacity, and the support of others. Acevedo’s story, and the story of many of the other women I recommended for my daughter’s biography report, operated within the cultural, political, social, and economic confines of their time and yet led lives of intellect, courage, resilience, curiosity, and personal mastery. Asking questions such as, "What inspired them?", "What did they stand for?", "Why did they persist?", "What impact do they have on society today?", and "What lesson can I learn from them?" allow us and our children to discover more stories about our past and teach the lessons that the constraints of an academic school year, or a Women’s History Month, cannot tell. 

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You can learn more about the inception of Women’s History Month sign up for the This Month in History newsletter here. Check out our free current events pages built exclusively for K–5 students and 6–12 students.

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