Tell stories of women in American history

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by Lynn Yeakel and Rosemarie Greco

Almost three decades ago, the nearly all-male U.S. Congress declared March National Women’s History Month in perpetuity. Finally, it was believed, the historical activities and accomplishments of American women would receive long-overdue attention. Boys as well as girls would learn about the contributions women have made to the American story.

Of course, if American women contributed to history only one month out of every year, a specially designated Women’s History Month would be an appropriate observance.

But the reality is that women’s contributions to our nation’s history are not limited to one month in a year and so learning about them should not be limited, either. That’s what’s wrong with Women’s History Month.

Stories of women are woefully lacking in our K-12 classrooms and textbooks. Research has shown that when women are included at all in textbooks and curriculums, they are discussed in peripheral, supportive roles. Even the stories of influential women are omitted or relegated to a brief sidebar.

Similarly, women are grossly underrepresented in our civic life: Only nine of the 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall collection in the U.S. Capitol are of women, and fewer than 5 percent of the 2,400 national historic landmarks chronicle women’s achievements. No women appear on U.S. paper money, and there are no national holidays in honor of women.

As a result, young people grow up with a distorted, inaccurate, and incomplete understanding of women in American history. Not only is this perspective factually wrong, but the impact on young people is significant and harmful. The lack of girls and women in their textbooks and civic environment sends a very clear nonverbal message about the relative stature of boys and girls and men and women. As stated by educator and scholar Lynette Long, “It expands the broader message that the contributions of women don’t matter.”

In the 30 years since the establishment of Women’s History Month, classrooms, newspapers, websites, and other media have abounded with stories of famous women, women in particular professions, or women’s rights. To the extent that these lessons and activities help young people learn the diverse stories of women’s participation, experiences, challenges, and successes, Women’s History Month is a good thing.

As the late feminist and scholar Gerda Lerner replied when asked whether women’s studies were still needed, “For 4,000 years, men have defined culture by looking at the activities of other men.”

To fulfill one of its goals – to educate young people to value gender equality, shared leadership, and civic engagement – Vision 2020 is developing an education initiative to tell the stories of the women in American history who have demonstrated gender equality, shared leadership, and civic engagement.

These stories illuminate the courage, the skill, and the determination that women contribute to American progress.

Some say that Women’s History Month marginalizes women. That argument might be reasonable if women were equally represented in all aspects of society today. But when women are paid 81 cents compared with a man’s dollar, when women make up less than 20 percent of Congress, when women are less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs – these are the realities that marginalize women.

That’s why it’s important to keep telling the stories of American women so they can serve as inspiration, role models, and evidence of achievement during the month of March and throughout the rest of the year as well.

 

Lynn Yeakel is founder and executive director of Vision 2020, a national coalition dedicated to economic and social equality for women. Rosemarie Greco is Vision 2020′s co-chair.

This column originally appeared at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/inquirer/20140330_Tell_the_stories_of_women.html

 


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