Women’s History Course: A Brief Assessment

Snow Day!!!!

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.

12 comments… add one
  • Justin Felux Feb 9, 2007

    Good to hear you are having such a rewarding experience! I remember you seemed unsure of how it was going to turn out.

    The books you are reading are good and useful. However, it might help to supplement reading mainstream, liberal feminists like Steinem and Friedan with some of the more radical ones, like Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker. I cannot recommend those two names highly enough.

    Faludi’s book is really great — she has another good one about men (_Stiffed_). And speaking of men, it seems like you’ve delved a bit into “men’s studies” with the Roosevelt stuff. This is a very interesting topic! The history of “American manhood” is something I’ve been reading a lot about lately (in fact, I think it has supplanted my interest in the Civil War temporarily).

    If you ever get the notion, check out Michael S. Kimmel’s _American Manhood: A Cultural History_. It synthesizes most of the work that has been done in this very new, very exciting field. Kimmel did an interview for that radio show Talking History that the Organization of American Historians used to put out — it is a really interesting and brief listen:

    http://talkinghistory.oah.org/arch2000.html#Anchor-Fathe-46251

    Also, I strongly suggest checking out susan Brownmiller’s _Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape_. The subject of sexual coercion is one of the most central aspects of women’s history and women’s lives today, but it is rarely talked about in history classes.

  • Justin Felux Feb 9, 2007

    P.S. to my first post — I didn’t catch that line about essays by women who challenge the agenda of the feminist movement. Angela Davis and Bettina Aptheker would be perfect for that.

    You asked for good ideas for movies. I think “Salt of the Earth” would be perfect for your class. If you haven’t heard of it — it’s a movie from the McCarthy era about a zinc miner’s strike in New Mexico. The film was blacklisted at the time.

    In the movie, the male zinc miners (many of whom are Latino) go on strike, but circumstances require the women to take the places of the men on the picket line. Essentially, the male strikers find their roles reversed, as they have to come to terms with the increased activity of their wives, while they take care of household chores and children.

    The increased role of women in the strike results in the demands being changed — while the male workers controlled the union they were concerned with job safety, higher pay, etc., but paid little attention to issues such as sanitation and child care. The involvement of the women in the strike, coupled with the men having to take on the burden of “women’s work” brings these issues to the forefront.

    Aside from the lead actor (a Latina) and a few others, most of the cast is played by actual workers rather than professional actors. The husband of the lead actor is played by an actual union leader.

  • Justin Felux Feb 9, 2007

    I’m covering the Great Depression right now with my students. One of the assignments I’m giving involves them reading letters that young girls wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt. We are also critically analyzing the famous Depression-era photos of Dorothea Lange.

    For the former assignment, I picked out some letters written by children to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for money, clothes, food, and other things. Some of these letters are downright heart-wrenching. Some of the best ones can be found on this site:

    http://newdeal.feri.org/eleanor/er3a.htm

    For the assignment, they take on the role of Eleanor Roosevelt and write a respond to whichever letter they are given. In writing their response they typically talk about the New Deal programs and what the government was doing at the time to help children and families. After they turn in their written letter we discuss them in class and (as I always try to do) relate what we are studying to recent history and current events.

    You could probably use that idea when you get to the Great Depression — Eleanor Roosevelt is a towering figure in women’s history. And the letters are almost all from young girls. They’re great primary sources because they are short, easy to read, and very interesting.

    Even though I knew a lot about Depression-era America, the first time I went through them I was shocked by the level of intimacy and faith that these youngsters had in Roosevelt and the new role the federal government was playing at the time. How many kids nowadays would end a letter to Laura Bush with words like “I love you so much”?

    This one letter from an African American girl is particularly interesting (and sad):

    http://newdeal.feri.org/eleanor/wb0738.htm

    We are covering World War II next, and I am looking forward to the discussions we will be having about Rosie the Riveter. Government propaganda during World War II is a great primary source — particularly the propaganda related to women and the workplace. All of the propaganda stressed the _temporary_ nature of the work — all women were expected to quit the jobs when the war was over.

    Some of the government-produced video propaganda at the time is downright hilarious to watch in retrospect. A fake “newscaster” asks a female welder (who is obviously not a welder, but a beautifully made-up hollywood actress without a single smudge of dirt on her face) if she’s looking forward to working after the war is over. She vehemently denies that she has any notion of continuing to work. “I’m just keeping the seat warm for my husband when he gets back.”

    I forget the name of the video where I got this stuff — I can look it up and post later if you want.

  • Justin Felux Feb 9, 2007

    Before you ban me from your blog for flooding it with posts, I wanted to put a few more ideas out there.

    1. I mentioned Angela Davis a couple of times. The book to get from her is _Women, Race and Class_. In it she analyzes racism in the feminist movement from the 19th century to the modern feminist movement. It’s really good.

    2. Does your school have pep rallies? I caught a Talking History interview with a woman named Mary Ellen Hanson, and found that pep rallies could be an interesting teaching moment. Here is the interview:

    http://talkinghistory.oah.org/arch2001.html#Anchor-Cheerleadin-6233

    She wrote a book called _Go! Fight! Win!: Cheerleading in American Culture_. It turns out that cheerleading was originally considered a very masculine activity and was dominated completely by men (it started in colleges, and only men went to college at the time).

    I start out by asking them about the pep rally that’s happening today, then I ask them what they think about men who become cheerleaders. They admit that the guy is probably really feminine or wimpy, or a homosexual. From there I go into a mini-lecture about the masculine origins of the cheerleading ritual and how it changed over time.

    This helps illustrate the plasticity and socially constructed nature of gender roles. Most of the students are really interested to find out that what is considered “masculine” and “feminine” has changed a great deal over time.

    It’s good that you read _The Beauty Myth_ too, cause I’ve found that students are also very interested in the ways standards of beauty change over time, and how our concept of “beauty” impacts their lives today. I think that Naomi Wolf pays outrageously little attention to _race_ as it relates to “beauty” in that book.

  • Kevin Levin Feb 9, 2007

    Justin, — It’s really nice to hear from you again and thanks so much for taking the time to offer these suggestions. I am definitely going to follow up on some of them. Unfortuately, we don’t have a cheerleading squad, but it definitely sounds interesting and you are absolutely correct re: Wolf and race. I do have some texts lined up to fill in some of these gaps.

  • In the mid 90’s, I found myself being a first time supervisor–of 10 women. Although fairless clueless I wasn’t stupid and one book that really helped me see the difference in gender was “You Just Don’t Understand” by Deborah Tannen. It’s been more than 10 years since I’ve read it, now it’s on my list when I browse bookstores.

    I like your blog. I’ll be reading…

    Regards,

    Glenn

  • Kevin Levin Feb 10, 2007

    Glenn, — Thanks for the suggestion. Next time I am in my local bookstore I will check it out. And thanks for the kind words re: the blog. Always nice to hear a vote of confidence from a new reader.

  • H Chase Livingston Mar 20, 2007

    I stumbled across your website and was happily surprised to see a section on Women’s History. I am a women’s history enthusiast and just wanted to add a couple comments.

    By far, my favorite film regarding the subject is “Not for Ourselves Alone” by Ken Burns. I really didn’t care for the Hollywood made “Ironed Jawed Angels” though it did attract the attention of some who wouldn’t have watched it otherwise.

    It is really sad to hear that many of the women in your class perceive the suffragists or feminists as manly. Could it be that they have strength and courage or the indifference to male approval somehow mixed up with masculinity. Perhaps that is an issue that should be discussed. They should understand the adversities these women were faced with and the ridicule they boldly faced to secure the freedoms we currently take for granted.

    I also wanted to volunteer an idea that I found both useful and lots of fun. I attended a “Ladies Tea Party” a few years ago where some of the women dressed up in period outfits and portrayed various famous women from history. They each researched the characters they portrayed. As we all enjoyed our tea, they took turns introducing themselves. They told us a bit about who they were, what they did & what they believed. It was both entertaining and educational for us all.

    I had told some historian friends in Australia about this. They liked it so much they told me they had stolen the idea and together with Helen Reddy have taken it into schools in Sydney and were using it as a tool to bring awareness and enthusiasm to the study of women’s history.

    Sadly, I have to say that most people have little knowledge about women’s history. Even with our most notorious suffragist – Susan B. Anthony, little more than her name is known. When I ask if anyone can tell me what year she was arrested, the response is usually that they didn’t know she’d been arrested nor why. A very sad fact since her trial was one of the biggest injustices in history. I think stories like hers would be very interesting not to mention emotionally engaging for a class.

    Much of this history has been lost and it is very commendable that you are making an effort to keep it alive. Best of luck and keep up the good work.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2007

    Thanks for the kind words. I love the idea of the tea party. We are going to address many of the points that you made as we start the final quarter of the year. We’ve looked at a big chunk of women’s history, but I do want my students to think critically about issues relating to gender and feminism.

  • Kevin, I’m fascinated by your posts and comments received. Though I’m coming late to the conversation, I’d like to add my appreciation that you are helping to give a voice to women’s history. Recently, I read a marvelous book by Jack Holland called “Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice”, which gives a great overview of the topic and important insights. You might want to look at it as you plan a future course.

    I write novels and plays, usually set in the post-Civil War South, and am very interested in women’s history and life on the homefront. My most recent novel, “Women of Magdalene”, follows an idealistic field surgeon as he leaves the War behind to take up a new post in a ladies’ lunatic asylum. Misogyny and racisim are importatnt issues, of course, as is the physical and emotional damage of war. Yesterday at a bookstore signing, I asked my friend Wava Everton to perform the Civil War song, “Somebody’s Darling”, mentioned in my novel. One of the customers listening to her glorious voice was a weather-beaten middle-aged man, whose eyes began to fill. After she finished the song, the three of us talked a little about the man’s son, whom the man had not seen in years and who had just shipped out for Iraq. The father’s sadness and sense of loss was as timeless and moving as Marie Revenal de la Coste’s lyrics.

    Thanks again for creating such an informative and interesting site.

  • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2007

    Thanks for the reference. I am looking forward to teaching this course again in the spring. Much of my time was spent last year just familiarizing myself with the literature. I’ve got a great group of students lined up for the class and even a few boys have registered.

  • Kevin, I recently began reading a book edited by Patrick Minges entitled FAR MORE TERRIBLE FOR WOMEN (Personal Accounts of Women in Slavery). Reading social history and personal accounts, I try to capture a sense of time, place, and human emotions for my fiction writing–and I’m also fascinated and moved by the history, itself. The plight of 19th c. black women is particularly disturbing as they were victims of both racisim and misogyny.

    I’d be very interested to read your comments on how you include black women’s history in your women’s history course. (On a contemporary note, I recently heard a radio discussion among black women about whether they would be more inclined toward voting for a presidential candidate based on race or gender.)

    As always, I enjoy visiting your site. Thank you!

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