The American history that most of us were taught is incomplete at best, misleading and incorrect at worst.
“Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin ‘helping’ them,” said Dr. Gerda Lerner, the late feminist scholar. “Such a world does not exist — never has.”
In other words, “What happened historically and what we know as history are two different things .”
Gender bias is pervasive in classrooms and our culture. K-12 textbooks and curricula portray women as bystanders to history with fewer than 11 percent of textbook references devoted to specific women.
The failure to tell the stories of American women goes way beyond the classroom:
Across the country, fewer than five percent of the 2,400 national historic landmarks chronicle women’s achievements.
Only nine of the 112 statues in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall are of women.
Of the 5,193 public outdoor sculptures of individuals in the United States, only 394, or less than eight percent, are of women, compared with 4,799 of men, or more than 92 percent, according to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Art Inventories Catalog.
This incomplete and inaccurate view of American history is misleading and harmful to both girls and boys. The lack of girls and women in their textbooks, curriculum and civic environment sends a very clear message about the relative stature of boys and girls and men and women. “It expands the broader message that the contributions of women don’t matter,” says psychologist Lynette Long, founder of gender parity advocacy nonprofit Equal Visibility Everywhere.
We need to do a much better job of telling the whole story of American history. And not just by dropping a few “famous firsts” into the curriculum or setting aside a special month focusing on women’s history, with women and events taken out of historical context.
Women, of course, have always been part of American life, creating history right alongside men. Political, economic, social and cultural history have all affected and been affected by women. Often in our history, women have taken the lead in shaping our nation. They have led reform movements like abolition and suffrage; fought for better working conditions in the industrial age; forced focus on public health and education; and played significant roles in every war and conflict.
Check out these American women and events you have likely never heard of:
During the American Revolution, Sybil Ludington was only 16 in 1777 when she rode 40 miles during a rainy night to give the alert of a British attack on Danbury, Connecticut. She roused 400 militiamen to be ready to fight at dawn. Others took up arms alongside men, some impersonating men like Deborah Sampson; others like Prudence Cummings Wright defended their families, farms and towns when their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons were off fighting.
Mary Bowser was a spy for the Union army. A slave who had been freed and sent north to Philadelphia for an education, she returned to Richmond during the Civil War and hired herself out as a slave in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. She read documents and listened to political conversations, then reported this information to the Union army. Harriet Tubman, in addition to her famous exploits with the Underground Railroad, also spied behind enemy lines.
Alice Paul was the suffragist leader and political strategist whose activities finally forced passage of the 19th Amendment granting 20 million American women the right to vote. She was the first political leader — male or female — to take political protest directly to the gates of the White House. She and her “Silent Sentinels” protested there every day for 17 months, until they were arrested for blocking traffic and taken to prison where they were brutalized by the guards. Protesting their treatment with a hunger strike, they were physically force-fed. Tens of thousands of American women participated in the long fight for the right to vote including many African-American women such as Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell.
Women were also business entrepreneurs. Eliza Lucas Pinckney, who took over her family’s plantations at age 16, figured out how to grow and market a high quality blue indigo dye. Lydia Estes Pinkham built a successful business by marketing her herbal home remedies to women and teaching them about health issues. African-American Madame C.J. Walker was the first American woman to become a millionaire through her own business, and Elizabeth Arden introduced beauty cream and eye makeup to American women and built a cosmetics empire.
Women were scientists and doctors as well. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. in 1849. Ann Preston was among the first class of women to graduate from the Female Medical College in Pennsylvania in 1852 and later served as its first female dean. Throughout World War II, female mathematicians worked with the Army, calculating the ballistics tables used for targeting missiles in the war overseas.
These stories illuminate the courage, skill, and determination that women have contributed to American progress. That’s why it’s important to tell their stories –the other half of American history — so they can serve as inspiration, role models, and evidence of achievement to girls and boys and women and men and we all know what really happened.
Beth Olanoff is the director of the Education Initiative at Vision 2020, a center in the Institute of Women’s Health and Leadership, Drexel University College of Medicine. Vision 2020 is a national coalition of organizations and individuals united in the commitment to achieve women’s economic and social equality.