learning about women's history
March 11, 2003 02:57 PM

I posted this week's We Have Brains topic after musing quite a bit. Ironically, I left off a key part of my topic that actually kicked off the idea - one borrowed from a suggestion eris made a while ago.

I meant to talk about not just history, but things you might wish you'd been given, gifts or information. But the topic morphed as I wrote. Well, I'll save the rest for later.

What was the most important thing you've learned about women's history?
What do you wish you'd been taught that you had to find out for yourself?
And finally, how does that apply to where you/we are today?

Rev already said what I wanted to say on the first one: that it existed.

More specifically, that there was a history of women not serving merely as helpmeets and icons of grace and loveliness. A lot of American history textbooks are aimed at teaching children to be some state politician's idea of Good Americans. Unfortunately, that doesn't just mean we leave things out of textbooks: we revise history entirely. Of course, I've talked about that already, and James Loewen does a better job of grounding this assertion than I could do in a single blog post. Read his book, Lies My Teacher Told Me for more.

Part of what your history textbook insinuated, for girls, was what made a good female American. Thus, you get Helen Keller, blind wild child transformed into docile activist for teaching blind people to read, and not, say - Helen Keller, feminist, communist, and so-called enemy of the people. Textbook-brand history glorifies the woman as support figure, homemaker, first lady, sewer of flags. [That's "person who sews flags", not "place where flags go when flushed down the toilet", mind you.]

This is not, by the way, a slight on the good people like Cinnamon who help write those textbooks. It is an unabashed dig at the bureaucratic process by which curricula and textbooks are selected in each state.

And this "good girl" quality doesn't just appear in textbooks. It was in all those little biographies, with series titles like "Young Patriots" and "Young Americans". The ones with the photos of faces superimposed on illustrations, remember those? I happened upon a handful of these at a thrift store when I was in college; it's surprising how pronounced the gender stereotypes were.

I read a lot as a child. I consumed a lot of these sorts of things. Things I wish no one had taught me.

I've also read the Standards of Learning in my state. I worry that those things are still being taught. Or rather, insinuated.

The most important thing I learned about women's history is that it existed. And I learned that on my own.

I had a series of excellent history teachers, too. One who put ancient history and all the civilizations into context, helped us to see how threads of each are visible today. One who laid Vietnam, school desegregation and the big bang theory side-by-side as a total picture of American adolescence. One who laid out for us the history of blacks in America from slavery through Malcolm X and tied it into McCarthyism.

Not one of those excellent teachers pointed out that ancient Crete may have been matriarchal, that the nascent women's movement was a sister to - and in some ways a splinter group of - abolitionism, that there was a whole branch of feminism associated with 1960's peace movements or that lesbian separatists and the Black Panthers might have had some things in common (or even that lesbian separatists existed).

What do I think this means today?

One of the advantages of not being taught things you should have been taught is that you begin to suspect education. To question what you are told. This is true, at least, if you find things out later.

There are ways beyond teaching to learn this trait and to learn the things no one taught you. Most of us probably get it from college, but the beauty of modern media is that you can now also learn about women's history, black history, Indian history - from the media. Even, a little, from pop culture.

I think, despite anything schools may teach about being American, that learning to critique what you're told is a key part of citizenship. It would be grand to teach that in schools, because not every kid responds to "girl power" by seeking more to learn, not every kid goes to college, not every kid reads Loewen, but every kid grows up into someone who ought to vote.

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your wicked thoughts

I like what you're saying about the importance of learning critical perspectives. I think education is often considered as a discrete set of facts and information for children to learn, rather than a set of strategies, methods, and tools for learning that they can use throughout their lives. I think feminism can be one of these strategies to help students examine the biases present in government, politics, the media, etc.

these are the thoughts of Jordynn on March 12, 2003 06:35 PM

I like the idea of most "isms" as educational tools. As adults, even, isn't that ultimately a big part of any movement?

these are the thoughts of april on March 16, 2003 07:34 PM

I would like to get the name given to a person who sews flags

these are the thoughts of Hane Rarua-Napkai on June 3, 2004 07:07 PM

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