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Women's roles, now writ (too?) large

By Lisa Leigh ConnorsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 2, 2004

"You're what?" says Neely. "Enlisting," says Matty, a young girl. "Lincoln's going to issue another call for volunteers, and when he does, I am signing up. I can't sit by and let this war pass me by."
- excerpt from "Matty's War," a book based on a true story about women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War.

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Ten years ago, Carole Shmurak visited a dozen middle schools and 80 classrooms in central Connecticut to find out how much women's history was being taught.

The results? Just about zilch.

"Textbook publishers did include women in history books, but they were usually boxed off in a separate box and teachers would tend to skip over it," says the author and professor emeritus at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.

"When we talked to language arts teachers, very few of the books had female protagonists. When we questioned them, they said, 'That's just the way the curriculum is.' "

After finding almost no women on bulletin boards, or in textbooks, or classroom discussions, Ms. Shmurak and her coauthor, Tom Ratliff, decided to write a series of historical novels, such as "Matty's War," that would illuminate women's history. Since then, the pair has written several more books, which feature stories about a woman doctor on the frontier to post-Civil War women's rights.

The movement of trying to write more "her-story" into history, of course, has been going on for decades. But even as this month marks the 17th year that women's history month has been celebrated, there is still much dissatisfaction with the way women have - or haven't - been worked into history curricula.

Women are much more present today than they were anytime before 1980 or so, most observers agree. But the degree to which they should be present and the way that presence should be handled are still in dispute.

Opinions range from those who feel that women-in-history advocates have gone overboard to those who believe that a recent backlash against "diversity" has actually edged women back out of the curriculum and diminished their presence in recent years.

Finally, there are many who contend that women are definitely receiving more attention in history class - but often in an artificial way that doesn't include a broader context that would make their presence more meaningful.

Sure, textbooks today go beyond Rosie the Riveter, Betsy Ross, and Pocahontas, but what's missing is a push for critical thinking, says Leslie Lindenauer, a history professor at the University of Hartford and executive director of the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame.

"Just a few years ago, with every class I taught, my students were woefully lacking any sort of background in an integrative history," she says.

"Their level of knowledge didn't go much beyond what they could have learned in the 1970s. They were able to list a number of famous women, but they couldn't talk about the issues surrounding these women."

For example, instead of just memorizing dates and names during the suffrage movement, students should understand how the 19th Amendment affected ordinary women. Or students could be encouraged to investigate ways in which the Industrial Revolution changed household work, says Susan Adler, an associate professor of teacher education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "Our curricula too often reflect one focused on great events. Important events and key people are a significant part of what kids ought to learn, but it's the ordinary folks, [including women], that we need to understand as well."