Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 4, 2010.
The trouble with Women’s History Month—with all these special months—is that they encourage people to think that problems have been solved. The female heroes of yesterday are acknowledged, the debt paid and the slate wiped clean.
Women have been written back into history, we’re told. And we get an entire month to learn about all the women in U.S. history, from Abigail Adams to Sojourner Truth to Sandra Day O’Connor and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But history is more than biography. Highlighting a few noteworthy women in March (or black people in February or Latinos in October) can lead students to think that the exception proves the rule: These dozen or so ladies really stood out, but the rest? Forgettable.
Were I still in the classroom, I would teach about how women lived, and why their contributions—whether as a crucial member of the household economy in the pre-industrial era, or as a Lowell mill girl, or as a secretary during the Mad Men years—were consistently undervalued.
And then I would bring up the present. Despite appearing on television in nearly equal proportion with men as high-powered lawyers, renowned medical examiners or high-ranking police officers (while wearing heels, perfect make-up and sexy clothes), women in fact have not achieved parity with men in terms of either occupation or equal pay.
Try a simple project in your class. Have students cut out paper dolls of boy and girl stick figures and ask them to choose one for each of the following occupations: secretary, nurse, teacher, cashier, firefighter, doctor, engineer. If they choose the boy doll for any of the first four, congratulations—you’ve got some serious counter-culturalists there.
In fact, the top four occupations for U.S. women in 2008 were: secretary (or administrative assistant), K-8 schoolteacher, registered nurse and cashier.
And even when women get jobs in male-dominated occupations, they still earn less.
I know. Elementary students learn from stories, and heroes matter as role models. Then tell the story of Lilly Ledbetter. She found out she had been underpaid only after years of working as an area manager in an automobile tire plant. Ledbetter worked alongside 15 men who had the same job and earned up to 40 percent more. She sued, but lost when the Supreme Court ruled that she had waited too long. The court reached that decision even though Ledbetter didn¹t know about the injustice while it was happening.
There’s a semi-happy ending to the Lilly Ledbetter story. The first bill President Barack Obama signed into law, in January 2009, was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allows women to sue even years after discrimination begins.
How should we teach Women’s History Month? With the truth: that we’ve made progress, but injustice still exists. Let’s teach students to hunger for justice, know how to recognize its absence and fight for it in the imperfect world they inherit.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.