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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

U.S. history curricula isn’t gender ‘inclusive’

Sacajawea, a Shoshone Indian, helped the Lewis and Clark expedition explore the West.

U.S. history curricula remain mostly male, writes Elizabeth Weingarten in The Atlantic. The campaign to include women’s “stories” stalled about 20 years ago.

In 1971, groundbreaking research quantified just how underrepresented and misrepresented women were in U.S. high-school history textbooks, finding, for instance, that there was more textbook space devoted to the length of women’s skirts than to the suffrage movement. Big textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill, Macmillan Publishers, and the American Psychological Association printed guidelines about how to publish less sexist material. Universities funneled money into new women’s-studies courses; San Diego State University launched the first department of women’s studies in 1970. Congress passed the Women’s Education Equity Act in 1974, which funded more research and the creation of national resource centers to help school districts that wanted to deliver bias-free educations.

“Sexism became more subtle, and women’s stories more common,” writes Weingarten. But history classes, especially in middle and high school, continue to stress presidents, generals and captains of industry, most of whom were men (and dead and white).

“If your job at the K-12 level is to give kids a chronological understanding of major historical events, you can’t end up with equal representation of men and women,” because, throughout history, women and men haven’t played equal roles in prominent leadership positions, explains Chester Finn, the president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “It would be historically inaccurate to try to do that.”

Feminists “wanted women and gender to be treated as more than sidebar history’,” writes Weingarten. But that’s often just what happens: History books are stuffed with sidebars. Here’s Betsy Ross. There’s Sacajawea, Harriet Tubman and Helen Keller. I wonder if Caitlyn Jenner will get a sidebar soon.

“It’s tricky to make the case that more gender balanced curricula matters when it comes to student-achievement outcomes,” Weingarten concedes. “Girls are faring better than boys” in virtually all academic outcomes.

rigorous Advanced Placement U.S. History class turned Alli Aldis into a history lover, she writes. “We read and analyzed primary sources on a daily basis that supplemented the information we gathered from our textbooks every night. . . . There was no need for a “Women of American History” unit or a special project on African American heroes because we had always included them in the study of each time period.”

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