Women and the American Story
Women & the American Story (WAMS), our brand-new, completely free curriculum website, launched on International Women’s Day. After over a year of research, archival treasure hunting, writing, workshopping with teachers, and lesson piloting, we’re thrilled to share the first two units of the ten-unit curriculum project with the world. As one teacher put it while beta testing the website: “History teachers rejoice!”
Did you know that only 13 percent of historical figures in US history textbooks are women? This is a major disparity that misrepresents the American past, and it leaves half of our students feeling marginalized. Teachers recognize this problem, and we are excited to be able to help them address it.
WAMS connects educators, students, and curious individuals with resources that illuminate how a diverse array of women made history. Through the website, teachers have access to a wealth of materials that they can share with their students via digital or hard copy. Students will have another trusted source for research projects, and for our female students, a place to finally see themselves reflected in the American past. Curious individuals will have a place to fill in gaps in their own history knowledge and meet some truly incredible agents of change.
So what’s inside? Each unit is jam-packed with primary source documents, images, artifacts, maps, and ephemera; short biographies; brief background essays; discussion questions; and so much more. Arranged chronologically and thematically so that you can learn about specific eras or trace big ideas over time, WAMS is full of resources that speak to the ways that women have always engaged at every level of American society. As another teacher put it, WAMS is a “true treasure trove of readily accessible resources for K-12 teachers!”
The first two units to launch are Early Encounters, 1492-1734 and Modernizing America, 1889-1920. In each, we worked hard to curate a selection of resources that can be easily integrated into teachers’ existing lesson plans and help meet the already-demanding social studies standards. We call this “plug and play.” WAMS also underscores women’s unique experiences: the challenges they faced as a direct result of being women in societies that legally and culturally restricted them and the challenges that reverberate for many women to this day (for one example, see our blog post on exploring the long history of sexual violence in the context of the #MeToo movement). There are inspiring and painful lessons to be learned from the American past, and WAMS seeks to honor both.
Early Encounters, 1492-1734
In Early Encounters, we investigate the intertwined roles Native, African, and European women played in the early colonial period. Some highlights include:
- Negotiating the Surrender of New Netherland: Women have been political actors for hundreds of years. Two wives of councilmembers in New Amsterdam, the capital of the Dutch colonial enterprise, were crucial to negotiating the surrender of the colony to the British in 1664.
- The Gateras of Quito: Did you know that Native market women in colonial Quito fought licensed male Spanish colonials numerous times in court to preserve their rights to sell goods? They won these rulings and were able to sell a variety of products for lower prices because they were exempt from paying taxes. In a time when Native people were disenfranchised by colonial enterprises, these women used the institutions of the colonial government to their advantage.
- Mortar and Pestle for Pounding Rice: Everyday objects can teach us important things, like this mortar and pestle, which were vital tools in the process of separating grains of rice from the rice plant. Enslaved women brought knowledge of rice cultivation from Africa, but despite their central role in the economic success of the colony, they were violently forced to labor under a system that denied them their fundamental human rights.
Modernizing America, 1889-1920
The Modernizing America unit looks at the Progressive Era to explore the extent to which it was truly a time of positive change for diverse American women. Some of our favorite pieces include:
- Madam C.J. Walker: The first self-made black female millionaire! Madam C.J. Walker built a beauty empire. At a time when beauty in the black community was a controversial issue used in fights for and against the racism of the Jim Crow era, Madam Walker created products that promoted healthy hair and built a business that celebrated, supported, and empowered black women.
- Mexican Women Unionize: In the early 20th century, many women took action in support of labor reform, like the Mexican laundry workers of El Paso, Texas, who formed a union and fought against unfair labor practices, generating a citywide movement for better pay.
- Edith Maude Eaton: Writing has often been a tool for giving a voice to those denied one. This British-Chinese immigrant wrote about the Chinese experience in America during the era of exclusion, raising awareness about the unfair treatment and racism experienced by the Chinese American community.
The site has been live for less than three weeks, and we are thrilled to already hear that it’s working! A teacher recently emailed us to tell her story:
I wanted to share how wonderful your curriculum has been for integrating more diverse perspectives into our social studies lessons. In my first year teaching, I was alarmed by how few female choices my students had when they were assigned to write colonial biographies. Since then, I have been accustomed to finding my own resources, scouring online primary sources or out-of-print biographies so that my students can have more choices and become familiar with often forgotten stories. This resource has been invaluable for me in my quest and has helped me introduce more women into my classroom that even I had never known about!
More WAMS coming soon!
So what’s next? We’re already hard at work on the next two units, which will launch on Election Day 2019: Settler Colonialism and the Revolution, 1962-1783 and On the World Stage, 1920-1948. Two additional units will launch each year until 2022, when all ten units will be complete. Sign up for our newsletter to get updates and be the first to see the new units when they’re ready!
We’re eager to get WAMS to as many people as possible. For teachers, we have a wide array of professional development opportunities at the New-York Historical Society and will be taking WAMS on the road this summer. Keep an eye out for more information in the months to come. We’re also continuing to pilot WAMS in the classroom. If you’re a teacher who has already used (or is planning to use) WAMS in your classroom, let us know how it goes!
And if you’re just someone who loves history, someone who knows–like we do–that there’s always more to learn about the past, WAMS is for you. Check out the website, keep visiting Women at the Center for updates and highlights from our ongoing work, and attend a What the History?! program if you’re in New York.
For those of you who have been following us on this journey, thank you for your continuing support. And for those who are new to us, welcome to the #WAMSfam. The website is just the beginning. In the coming months and years we will be incorporating WAMS into a broad array of programming for teachers, students, teens, and adults. Because women’s history is American history, and we all benefit from broadening the lens through which we view the American past.
— Mia Nagawiecki, Vice-President for Education, and Lee Boomer, Manager of Education Special Projects, New-York Historical Society
Top image credit: Women and the American Story