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

"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.

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."

Today, there is increased attention toward integrating women into textbooks because there's been a backslide, says Ms. Lindenauer. "There are scholars who would say that the 1990s and early 21st century have seen a backlash against diversity with regards to gender. In learning environments, we're reenergized."

Peter Wood is leading the pack. A professor of early American history at Duke, he is the lead author of a recent US history survey text, "Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States" (Longman). Mr. Wood says the efforts to integrate women into history textbooks is partly being pushed forward by publishers like Longman, but it's also simple logic.

"For a while, there was a whole generation of 'either-or,' " says Wood. "You might take a women's studies course or you might take a traditional American political history course, and the two were kind of separated. There's an effort now to try to bring these back together."

While Wood was working on this book with four other authors (three of whom were women), he discovered a flood of women's history that is only now starting to be absorbed.

For example, Belva Lockwood ran for president in 1884. She was also the first woman to practice law in front of the US Supreme Court in 1879 and was a women's suffrage proponent. Gertrude Ederle was a 19-year-old Olympic gold medalist when she became the first woman to swim the English Channel in 1926. Though six men had preceded her, she beat their best time by two full hours.

"So it's rediscovering people who were quite well known at the time," says Wood, "but who slipped through the cracks for too many years."

So, are the cracks completely filled? High school teacher Jana Eaton thinks so, maybe a little too much.

"If anything, some of the texts have gone too far the other way," says the teacher of AP government and politics at Unionville High School in Kennett Square, Pa.

"I think we've come a long way from the white European male-dominated history texts that were so prevalent before the 1980s. In fact, I wonder if we haven't gone overboard in the other direction with political correctness, resulting in history that's distorted or mythologized."

But according to Karen Zittleman and David Sadker, authors of the report "Teacher Education Textbooks: The Unfinished Gender Revolution," that's not the case. The pair studied 23 teacher-education textbooks. Of these, only 7 percent of their text was devoted to women's contributions.

And when they do appear, says Ms. Zittleman, they're still fragmented, put in a special box, or treated as a special feature. "It sends a subtle message that those women aren't really part of history."

To further integrate women, Wood says, there are many things a teacher can do. For instance, the topic of Asian immigration in the Progressive era leads to a discussion of Asian-American family life and women as workers. "It comes up in any time period you pick," says Wood.

Judith Cowell, who teaches seventh and eighth grades at McGee Middle School in Berlin, Conn., uses Shmurak's books in her language arts class because "it's realistic fiction and it helps generate a discussion about the history of the war and why the war started."

That's one of the reasons Lyn Reese, director of the Women in the World History Curriculum in Berkeley, Calif., started writing "Spindle Stories" in the 1990s, a series of historical tales for middle school students that helps get them interested in history. It shows the importance of the spindle as a tool for women's economic contributions.

"It's a way," Ms.Reese says, "to bring women in the classroom without simply saying, 'and the women were there, too....' "

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