Bittinger: Still Teaching Women's History

Mar 20, 2015

Looking back at history taught before the 1970s, the stories of men who ruled the world were what mattered. Unless you were a queen and ruled an empire, you didn’t fit into the military, economic, social and political history being taught in schools across the globe. The stories of less prominent women were simply thought to be worth less.

To uncover these neglected stories, historians had to look into non-traditional sources – digging deep into information about household accounts, family ties, community life, educational settings, and the arts. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, probing into diaries and account books, found a whole sub-strata of the history of early colonial New England. Not to know this history is to be ignorant of the legal and social constraints on women and how women eventually managed to remove them.

Historian Gerda Lerner noted that the movement to obtain the vote for women involved excellent strategizing and teams of lobbyists, but no threats of violence. That remarkable story needs to be told. Civil rights activists in the 1960’s credited Gandhi and Tolstoy as the antecedents of their non-violent tactics – not realizing that female abolitionists and suffragists were even earlier practitioners of this behavior.

Most history survey courses do acknowledge female activists and trouble makers – since it’s often said that “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” But so-called women’s topics like reproduction, the life cycle, education and workforce participation are real game changers for women in modern history.

Professor Lerner had also observed that “history connects past and future and becomes a source of personal identity.” Young African Americans learn about racial identity when they view the film “Selma” and hear the story of the civil rights march from Selma, Alabama to the state capital to demand voting rights.

In similar fashion, gender identity is gained by learning women's history. Young female students are often empowered by hearing the stories of their grandmothers, great-grandmothers and the limited opportunities they must have had. In my course on Women in U.S. History at the Community College of Vermont, students interview female members of their families and are often surprised to learn how they sacrifice d and often worked at low wage occupations. Male students too gain understanding and empathy.

At the beginning of the course, I ask my students if they vote – and most don’t raise their hands. Their votes don’t really matter, they say, and they don’t have time to learn about the issues. But after they’ve studied the suffrage movement, I ask them if they plan to vote in the future – and every hand goes up.