The Historical Woman: An Afterthought in Education

// by Anna Friedman

We need to change the way we talk about women in history education.  In a standard history class, students will get maybe one or two lectures specifically on women, often titled something along the lines of “Women in___” or “Women’s Experiences.”  After that, they are an afterthought, mentioned at most once per lectures dedicated almost solely to male experiences.  To learn more about them, one has to take a women’s studies course, which most students will not do as they see it as “supplementary” material.  The gendered experience is only considered in regards to women, and only mentioned in men when being used to contrast with a topic covering women. But why does women’s history need its own subject? When we speak of male historians, why do we not mention the fact that they were able to travel as they did because they were men, because they needed no spousal or parental approval to do so?  Why do we not mention the women who wrote histories unless we’re specifically covering women?  Why are the lectures centering men never titled “Men in ___.”?  

If your history does not include women, it is not accurate.  Women did not exist exclusively in certain spheres, they were a part of every point in history and every major event we study.  To ignore that is to prioritize the male perspective and paint it as “diverse” by including multiple men, and if we’re lucky, maybe a single woman, while we focus on why women so rarely participated in history.  As a history student, I’m tired of seeing this narrative that women were bystanders, that to even include their history one needs a separate unit. Women are people and need to be included in all of history, not just the parts where they were the majority, and your history class is not inclusionary just because it has a few lectures on women’s contributions, or a few readings here and there.  

If women are the primary participants in a major event or period of change, then just focus on the subject- stop calling it “Women as Activists” unless you’re going to start doing the same for every section where men were the majority.   So often I hear the excuse that there simply aren’t enough sources to include more female writers, that women were less literate and their contributions rarely saved.  And yes, it is true that women experience many more obstacles in preserving their views of history- but if a women’s studies professor can find enough material, enough primary sources to fill an entire class dedicated to women, why can’t your Gen Ed History professor find more for a class that’s meant to focus on the human experiences of a period/subject when women would reasonably only make up half the material in a class dedicated equally?  Women’s perspectives should simply be part of the human perspective, not always a commentary on gendered experience and oppression.  If they remain this excluded group, one that requires a separate course of study to understand, then women will continue being remembered only for their oppression, and those who made history as a unique success story.  Let women simply be people in history.  Because everyone should have the opportunity to take a women’s studies course, to learn more in depth about women and gender just as they would in any area of history, but no one should need to take one in order to see women in all of history.

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