Tomorrow I start my spring elective course on women’s history. I am very excited and also a bit nervous. For the past four years I’ve offered slightly different versions of a course on the Civil War. This year I wanted to try something new and give myself a little challenge because it’s important for teachers to see themselves as students every so often. I have 11 girls registered for the course, but unfortunately no boys. Right off the bat it looks like a case of gender construction at work: young men don’t take courses about women’s history. While we lose valuable perspective in not having any boys in the class I am looking forward to the opportunity to think through questions about how assumptions about gender have changed and what it means to do women’s history.
I’ve ordered an excellent textbook that includes a nice collection of primary sources as well as Betty Friedan’s classic 1963 study The Feminine Mystique. We are going to start off with some of the basics, including the distinction between sex/biology and gender construction and then we will jump right in and read the first chapter of Friedan and an examination of the "problem that has no name." My guess is that most high school students are not introduced to a mature reading of women’s history especially if they are using even slightly outdated textbooks. My AP students who are using Eric Foner’s new text are getting a heavy dose and he does an excellent job integrating this sub-theme into the broader narrative. My regular survey courses use the most recent edition of the standard text The American Pageant originally authored by Thomas Bailey. In the first few editions Bailey devoted 21 out of 1,000 pages to women and managed to mention only 48 by name. Of those 48 seven were not American women and an additional six were mentioned only in the context of their relationships to presidents. Eleanor Roosevelt was not mentioned at all along with Margaret Sanger and Jane Addams. And when Bailey described women who demanded their right to control their own property, retain custody of their children or call for the right to vote he characterized them as a "belligerent bevy of female agitators" and "fiery females." (p. 366). When it came to male "agitators" like Thomas Jefferson Bailey described him as a "brilliant writer" and reform President Woodrow Wilson as a "moving orator" and "idealist." p. 115 and p. 730).
One of the reasons I am so interested in gender/women’s history is that it has so much in common with the historiography of race and slavery. Like African-American history, women’s history is relatively new and I suspect that this has much to do with the increase in the number of programs of study introduced into colleges and universities and the increase in the number of women and African-American scholars that have entered the job market since the mid-1960’s. This also raises interesting questions about power and hierarchy. It is not surprising that most Americans still have a distorted view of slavery and race given that most histories of the histories were written by white men up until relatively recently. The same can be said about the place or absence of women in our collective memory. My goal is to emphasize women as agents of change in American history by looking at both prominent individuals and the lives of ordinary women. More importantly I want my students to see themselves as historically constructed around ideas of gender. They are part of the ongoing story. This class will hopefully give them the opportunity to step back and question the assumptions that have guided them thus far: What does it mean to be a woman at the beginning of the 21st century?
I love the fact that I still don’t know much about this subject. On the one hand I get to guide the class through some interesting literature, but at the same time I am looking forward to having the students teaching me something new. So, don’t be surprised if you see a post on this subject from time to time.