On Friday, September 14, the Texas State Board of Education held a vote to streamline the state’s history curriculum by decreasing the number of historical figures children study. This rocketed around the internet because two historic women, Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller, were both left on the cutting room floor. Online, many balked at the removal of the story of the first female presidential candidate for a major party, but there are higher stakes here. As our Vice President for Education, Mia Nagawiecki, explained on this blog last January, students “can’t be what they can’t see.” Leaving women out of history lessons marginalizes women not just in the past, but in the present and future as well.
A quick survey of the rubric of historical figures that the Texas State Board uses to make their decisions shows that women only accounted for about 11.4% of all named historical figures in the Texas history curriculum for grades K-12 (despite women comprising 50 percent of the population of the United States). There are no women who are explicitly mandated as part of the elementary school curriculum. Rather, they are only included in lists of possible figures for study. This means that it is possible for a teacher in Texas to go through an entire school year without once mentioning a historical woman by name.
In middle and high school, women’s history is contained to the greatest hits of temperance, voting rights, WWII, and the culture wars. At no level is there any exploration of how women’s experiences differed for women not only because they were women, but based on their race or class. By eliminating Clinton and Keller, an already lamentable situation is made worse.
But this isn’t just about Texas. Nationally, only 13% of named historical figures in textbooks are women. However, as the largest textbook buyer in the country, Texas matters, and the changes the state makes to history standards has national impact. Thus, Helen Keller may not be an important figure in Texas, but she might very well disappear from curriculum across the country as other states adopt textbooks written for Texas. This could undermine not just the teaching and learning of women’s history, but also the even less well-represented history of disability advocacy.
At the New-York Historical Society we strongly believe women’s history IS history, and that students of all ages and genders benefit when they learn about a diverse cast of historical actors. When we built our Women’s Voices permanent exhibition and our massive open online course, “Women Have Always Worked,” we asked leading historians of women why they chose to study women’s history. Many of these pioneering scholars explained that they took up this work because the textbooks they had encountered as students contained only men.
Our new curriculum guide, Women and the American Story, seeks to directly counteract the dearth of women in school textbooks and curriculum by providing teachers with direct access to primary sources, activities, and readings that address the actions and experiences of women of various races, classes, and ages throughout American history. Our three inaugural units — Early Encounters, 1492-1734; The New Republic and Early Reformers, 1790-1848; and Modernizing America, 1889-1920 — all offer fresh and engaging perspectives on the major events of American history, and make it easy for teachers to seamlessly integrate women’s perspectives into the lessons they already teach.
The historical record and the teaching of history can only be amplified and made richer—not watered-down or diminished—by including, in relevant and meaningful examples, the ways that the participation of one-half of the population shaped the past. Indeed, women are part of the American story.
– Center for Women’s History, New-York Historical Society
Top image credits: Helen Keller feeding a swan, 1913 (detail). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.