Insist on Persistent Women: Women's History in the K-8 Classroom

Young people need stories of persistent women who have fought for gender equality. Women's History Month is a good time for us to recommit to teaching those stories.
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Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in March 2018.

As a feminist historian and social studies educator, I like to take the month of March to refresh myself on what's new and notable in the study of women's lives. My personal ritual recently took on some added urgency last year, when the National Women's History Museum released a report on the coverage of women in K–12 state curriculum standards across the United States. 

What they found was dismaying news to many women's history advocates: Despite decades of unprecedented contestation and change on all manner of gender issues, curriculum standards continue to highlight "male-oriented exceptional leadership" while "overemphasizing women's domestic roles." 

The standards are not necessarily the final word on what happens in classrooms day to day. But we can all work to ensure we are doing much better than the low bar set by many state frameworks.

All young people, regardless of gender, need stories of persistent women—women from diverse backgrounds and experiences who have worked for social change, who have spoken up to make a difference and refused to be silenced in the face of disapproval. Our schools need to be places where critical questions about gender and power are asked from day one. The younger we set the table for gender equality, the better. In honor of Women's History Month, I offer these recommendations and resources for bringing gender studies to K–8 classrooms. 


Diversify your biography bookshelf.

Biographies are engaging for young readers. They can inspire dreams and affirm identity. Check your own bookshelf or reading list. Young readers these days have a rainbow of women's lives to read. Architect Maya Lin, astronaut Mae Jemison, inventor Margaret Knight, naturalist Jane Goodall, poet Gabriela Mistral, preacher Sojourner Truth, photojournalist Dorothea Lange and jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg are all the subjects of spirited new biographies for children. 

But so many more stories need to be better told. History UnErased and GLSEN are two organizations working to bring more inclusive LGBTQ curriculum to schools. Biographies of transgender, gay and bisexual women—including activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and author Audre Lorde—are among their important resources. Other sources, such as Indian Country Today, provide biographies of Native American women who made history. 

For young learners, biography can be an introduction to ideas like sexism, exclusion and inequality. What are the barriers well-known individuals had to face? What makes someone a good leader? What talents or accomplishments does our society value most, and what has that meant for women? Questions like these can move the dial on students' understanding of—and critical thinking about—gender and power.


Highlight collective action.

Individual stories of female accomplishment are necessary and inspiring, but they are not sufficient. Moving beyond biography, students can learn about women taking collective action for change. Younger learners readily grasp the concept of fairness: Responsive teachers can use that as an engine for social studies inquiry. Who was allowed to vote one century ago? Who was permitted to marry and be a family 20 years ago? 

Posing these questions piques interest. Elementary students can explore female-led movements, such as the suffrage campaign or garment workers' uprisings, using primary source sets from the Library of Congress and the American Social History Project, among others. Older students can look at connections between movements and activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X. They can discuss and debate the choices that leaders and activists have made in their struggles for women's equality and the points on which they disagreed.


Feature alliances between women and men. 

Gender equality is everyone's responsibility. Young people need stories of men and women working together. Dolores Huerta and César Chávez were longstanding allies whose collaboration and mutual respect were critical to the farmworkers' struggle. Frederick Douglass, the towering abolitionist and intellectual, was a lifelong champion of women's equality and one of the few men who attended the Seneca Falls women's rights convention in 1848. His brilliant speech in defense of women's rights still sets a standard for men's allyship. Middle grade students can research contemporary examples of men who recognize their male privilege and work for gender equality in professional, personal and public spheres. 


Bring a global perspective.

Women around the world today are at the forefront of campaigns for the environment, human rights, LGBTQ rights and Indigenous rights. They are leading crusades to decrease violence and bring an end to war. Teachers committed to teaching about equity can connect lessons about world geography or current events to gender equality and female leadership. 

The Green Belt Movement of Kenya, founded by Wangari Maathai, is an ideal case study. There are a number of books, fiction and nonfiction, about her work that allow a fine opportunity for critical comparative reading. Students could also explore the website of the Nobel Women's Initiative, which educates about women working for peace, justice and equality around the globe—women such as laureate Shirin Ebadi, lawyer and human rights crusader from Iran, or peacemaker Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. Students can use this site to learn about each movement in its place and time. Studying women's experiences through a global lens presents a more diverse and inclusive view of history. 

Persistent women, past and present, belong in the K–8 curriculum. Probing their stories, students gain deeper opportunities to engage with issues of gender justice—during Women's History Month and all year round.

Zeiger is a program director at Primary Source, a global education nonprofit based in Massachusetts. 

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