I am three weeks into my women’s history course and enjoying it a great deal. I have 11 female students, all but two are seniors. While the course is grounded in history I am trying to mix up the readings a bit to include both gender and feminist studies. Since this is my first time teaching the course I am learning as I go. More importantly I am learning a great deal from my students. Teaching on the high school level leaves you with the impression that girls as a group are more mature than boys. This class has already given me a clearer sense of just how true this is. High School girls are able to talk more openly about certain issues and they listen more intently to one another. What I am most pleased about is that a good number of my students are taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss and research issues that are already on their mind. It’s as if the content of the course is teasing out ideas and thoughts that are already there.
We started the first week by reading a short introduction on the language of gender and the reasoning behind a class on women’s history. We talked about the importance of understanding how women fit into American history and what it means that for so long they were ignored. The class explored the first chapter of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and wrote a concise overview of “the problem that has no name.” Last week we started working with the textbook, which is well written, thorough, and organized around an excellent collection of different types of primary sources. We started with the post-Civil War period and the split of the women’s movement into the NWSA and AWSA over the 15th Amendment as well as the entrance of women into the work force by the end of the twentieth century. I have two black students in the class so I want to make sure to address issues that touch on the roles of black women in American history. Luckily our textbook does an excellent job of covering issues that are specific to black women. I consider myself fairly well educated in the field of American history. I teach the AP classes and I have a pretty solid grasp of the important secondary texts. That said, I had no idea just how much I was missing before starting this class. Interesting people are emerging as well as important Supreme Court Cases, and the way I understand what I already know is being enriched. What more could I ask for?
This week we started our first project. My class is exploring the concept of masculinity at the turn of the twentieth century in the form of images of Theodore Roosevelt. I handed out a packet of images of Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War as well as images of him in connection with the Panama Canal and his role as Trust-Buster. As we move through Roosevelt images that highlight the importance of the “strenuous life” or extreme masculinity the students can draw comparisons with how women are depicted in the outdoors. I found some very interesting images of bicycle advertisements that include women as well as images of women playing tennis and other sports. The images attempt to strike a balance between play and maintaining accepted feminine qualities. Students are required to write a 3-page essay based on their own interpretations of the sources. As most of them are seniors I want to give them as much latitude as possible in developing their own thesis statements. Next week we will jump to the suffrage movement and explore the steps that led to the 19th Amendment. I plan to show the movie Iron Jawed Angels and have the students explore other primary sources from both well known and more obscure women who took part in the movement. I would love to hear other suggestions for movies that would be appropriate for this class.
While I have a general outline of what I want to cover in this course specific topics along with the relevant primary and secondary readings are still up in the air. As we into the twentieth century I hope to introduce the class to a combination of historical as well as feminist studies. Over the summer I read Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth along with a wonderful collection of essays by Gloria Steinem titled Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. It includes the classic essay “I Was a Playboy Bunny.” While I’ve enjoyed these books I am having a hell of a time making my way through Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. She offers a scathing argument against the “infertility epidemic” said to strike professional women who postpone childbearing; Faludi concludes that this is largely a media invention. I also want to introduce the class to essays written by women that challenge the agenda of the feminist movement.
I am already thinking about what electives I might offer next year. While I am thoroughly enjoying the focus on women’s history I will probably be expected to teach the Civil War course once again. One possibility may be to offer a Civil War course that focuses specifically on women’s experiences; the focus would be on the antebellum, war, and postwar periods. I’ve also been playing around with a more creative approach that involves locating a diary or set of letters from a woman/sisters who lived here in Charlottesville/central Virginia during the war years. I would focus the class on local history and have them help me prepare the archival material for publication. Students would have their names connected to the final publication. I know that John M. Priest utilized this approach on the high school level some years ago. His students contributed to the editing of a unit history authored by Sergeant William H. Reylea. It’s an interesting idea and would make for a truly unique high school experience. For now it is enough that I am enjoying this experience and learning a great deal.