I’m just going to say it, I have a difficult time working with male historians. I am perpetually offended by the way women are written about in history. Unpopular as that may be to some we need to encourage more women to enter history. It’s the only way to change how we view history.
History is a passion subject. Very few historians get rich and very few historians are famous outside of the realm of history. Can you name even one historian? If you can, you are probably a historian or history teacher. Now, if you could name a historian, was it a woman? If it was, you are probably a female historian or teacher like myself. (My favorites are Amanda Foreman, Lucy Worsley, and Alison Weir)
The field will never include enough women’s history or more accurate historical analysis without more women in the field. It is no longer acceptable to read about how women liked being forced to join a nunnery because they didn’t have to get married and deal with men. It is no longer acceptable for people to write about kidnapping and forced marriage as a good thing for the woman. The narratives must change.
Here are ways to encourage women into a field dominated by men and male thought:
1.Teach about women
Really teach about women. Not just include a woman in your curriculum but actually, teach about her. Hildegarde of Bingen is becoming popular in world history classes because she fits the criteria of a woman in history. She was real, we can verify she lived, and she was a popular figure in her day. But if you read about Hildegarde in common history textbooks she is usually only given a few sentences, maybe a paragraph, and they never analyze her role nor why she is important. (And the woman was a rock star.)
Don’t just teach that Christine de Pizan was a medieval writer. Her work still exists and can be found and utilized as a primary reading source. Compare her words to those of who she is rebutting. Continue to use her words when you get the Enlightenment and discuss the changes from what Christine de Pizan wrote to someone like Mary Wollstonecraft.
Hammurabi’s Code is another popular lesson in world history classes but no one stresses the inequalities between men and women. The code gives men the right to kill women if their husbands cheat. It may be an early influence on democratic ideals but it was far from equal.
Learn in-depth about primogeniture and Salic law and how they were used to strip the human rights of women over the centuries. It isn’t enough to “know” that women had fewer rights but we should be talking about the attempts to limit women in society and the laws created to punish them.
2. Identify themes of womanhood and incorporate them into your course
This is a little different than just teaching women’s history but you need to consider the unit you are working on and what are the themes of womanhood. Can you identify themes that would carry throughout your entire course? Can you identify themes for units or just for lessons?
An easy way to focus on women throughout a course is to focus on women’s fashion. How covered up was the body? What restrictions were used (corsets, footbindings)? What were men wearing?
You can also look at the major technological advancements and how did women’s lives change because of it. For example, as books became cheaper due to the print press, did countries react by making the literacy of women illegal? When did compulsory education for women begin? When the Industrial Age emerged and women went to work in factories, were their wages the same as men?
3. Read books with female protagonists
There are TONS of books with female protagonists written throughout history. The Poem of Mulan, for example, is one of China’s most beloved folktales and it is about a young woman who dresses as a man to go to war. Read it. Discuss it. Debate it. Make it normal to discuss the prominent role of a woman without it being March (Women’s History Month).
Justify reading Pride and Prejudice. It is about women trying to navigate the gender roles assigned to them in 18th century England. The book is a treasure trove of gender expectations, marriage, and courtship rules, economics, and it is well written and hilarious.
4. Read books written by women
Same justification above with now you are delving deep into the thought process of a woman. Men and women focus on very different aspects of life and we all need more female perspectives. Why? Because our world is a more balanced place when we no longer see everything from the male point of view.
When you read female authors from throughout history you get a unique opportunity to figure out what they were thinking and what their point was. Is it so very different from the way we think today?
Skip the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving great work of literature and choose instead to read the poetry of Enheduanna, the world’s first poet. Not the first female poet. The world’s first poet. Both of these works are from Mesopotamia but no one knows or studies Enheduanna.
The world’s first modern novel was written by Murasaki Shikibu. She wrote The Tale of Genji in the 11th century.
5. At a minimum, celebrate Women’s History Month
If you are unwilling to add more women to your course then you must celebrate Women’s History Month. Begin each class by teaching about or reading about a woman in history. And please, please stop celebrating celebrities. I like Michelle Obama a lot too but she is a contemporary woman, not a woman in history.
If you teach US history, find women that span the entire length of American history, not just the 20th and 21st centuries. Make strides to include women of color. The first woman to graduate college is important but maybe you should be telling the history of Soujourner Truth. It isn’t “pretty” but if we don’t want to repeat it we have to teach it.
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