My daughter’s school has a rather useful newsletter that they email on most school days. It always starts with a “this day in history” fact-let, which is fun. In months designated as “X history month” they add a second historical note about X. March is Women’s History Month, so we are getting a series of notes about women’s history. As the month has gone by something began to nag at the back of my mind about the women’s history facts. Finally, this week, I realized what it was. The first fact described a bit about the relationship between the abolitionist and suffrage movements. After that every single entry was an exceptional individual. It has been a parade of remarkable women who pushed social boundaries by being the first to enter a variety of fields from dentistry to auto racing, or who achieved notoriety as activists. While I think it’s great to acknowledge all of these women, they represent only a small slice of women’s history.
There is a very real tendency in public school history classes to take the “famous men and dates” approach. (For those of you who don’t teach this way, I applaud you, loudly and vigorously.) When it comes to women’s history, women are just plugged into the formula. There are several problems with this. The first is that women tend to be erased, sometimes quite literally, from historical records. The further you go back in time, the more opportunity people have had to drop women from the story. So on the one hand, yes, let’s credit women’s contributions by name. But keep in mind that a list of famous women with no acknowledgement of the the agendas in historical record keeping gives the impression that women in the last century are very different creatures from their counterparts in prior eras who appear to have sat back meekly and done nothing of note.
Bumper stickers with the phrase “well behaved women rarely make history” are popular in my region. I get it, I really do. But realistically, for much of history, being judged as a badly behaved woman didn’t help you make history, it made you dead. Real social change takes more than individual heros, and focussing only on the big names ignores both those who took chances, but weren’t fortunate enough to become known, and those who made the pragmatic decision to survive. It also tends to emphasize behaviors that are socially coded as masculine, and leave the underlying power structures unexamined. In this way simply choosing famous women to put into the famous men narrative misses the opportunity that Women’s History Month could provide to really explore how women have shaped and been shaped by history.
So what kind of Women’s History fact-lets would I like to see? How often have you come across something along the lines of: until a century ago, women’s work was limited to home and marriage? While that may be true, it’s misleading and can leave the impression that women’s unpaid labor is irrelevant to an economy. In fact, it has been estimated that unwaged work is worth $319 billion to the Canadian economy and £739 billion to the British. Looking for something more overtly historical? In the 1881 census in Britain women who assisted in family businesses, including farming, were recorded as unemployed if they did not receive a cash wage 1 . Only paid labor counted, and women in the household were not paid.
The point is not that the bad old days were bad. It’s intended as an exercise in looking at the way that historical attitudes shape both what we “know” about the past, and what we don’t question (or even notice) in the present. It’s a way of drawing attention to the history of women broadly within a context, rather than only highlighting unusual individuals. So here’s my challenge to you. Come up with women’s history month fact-lets that would be suitable for a high school newsletter and put them in the comments. Any period or region is fair game. The only rule is that you cannot mention individuals by name.
1 Lynn Abrams, The Making of Modern Woman. Pearson Education, 2002.
featured image: Pre-election suffrage parade in NYC, 1915
image: the execution of Ann Hibbins in 1656
image: Magdalen asylum England, early 20th century