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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 10, Number 7, May/June 1998

Making space for women’s history

by Jane Turner

“Why are there only men in this picture?” I asked my students. The boys and girls were looking at a picture in their text of Louis Joseph Papineau painted by C.W. Jefferys. A crowd was gathered around him as he delivered an oration on the need for responsible government in Quebec. The students studied the picture, and one ventured a response.

“These men are angry that they don’t have the right to vote.”

“Yes, that’s true, I replied, “but why does the painting show only men? Where were the women of Quebec?”

“Oh, there weren’t any women in history,” a student blurted out.

On numerous occasions and in a variety of ways, students in my secondary social studies classes have articulated similar sentiments. After years of studying history through their social studies courses, students have come to believe that women are not part of history. Coulter (1989) noted a similar finding in her work with high school students. Women are either completely absent from historical narratives, or their presence is described in ways that are insignificant to the important events of history.

The invisibility and marginalization of women in history is a problem keeping the study of history from realizing its full potential. We study history to understand and inform our present circumstances and to provide insight into actions we might take. Both the current and the proposed social studies curricula for B.C. include history as an integral part of the social studies curriculum for similar reasons. Students need to understand the past in order to participate fully in the present and prepare themselves for their future needs and those of society. But what does history lose if it is constructed around only half of humanity? If women are absent or marginalized throughout history then two problems occur: female students are denied the opportunity to learn about their particularized pasts, that of their foremothers, and the history that is studied by all students is only a partial reconstruction of the past.

History centred around men’s lives, activities, and events does not represent a history for all. It is argued that only white, middle class, heterosexual men count in history and that non-white, non-middle- and upper-class men as well as women have been removed from our view of the past. Only by our including women in history (in their historical relationships with and to men and society) will girls and boys in secondary social studies be able to understand their pasts and will the past hold significance for the present, a present that includes females.

In a recent attempt to revise the social studies curriculum in B.C., Moira Eckdahl, a secondary social studies teacher in Vancouver, noted that “despite advice from several sources to consult with women scholars on the language of outcomes which would explicitly write in women’s history, no such consultation ever happened.” Nor were proposed changes to the course of studies that would be inclusive of women accepted. Topics more inclusive of women’s experiences and open to feminist history, such as a “conflict/resolution,” were rejected in favour of the more traditional subject headings, such as “war.”

Even when acknowledgment is given that women helped shape the world in the past, acknowledgment is cursory. A major encyclopedia updated its entries to include the name of Emily Greene Balch, but the entry was but a few lines. Evidently the encyclopedia did not value the peace work done by Balch, even though she and several other women suggested a permanent arbitration body before the League of Nations was established and Balch herself received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1946. A quick check of the indexes of three texts appropriate for the History 12 curriculum in B.C.—Haberman, 1997; DeMarco, 1987; and Howarth, 1989—finds no reference for Emily Balch, even though all three texts deal specifically and supposedly in depth with the topic of the search for peace.

Would history be different if women were a more decisive and dominant factor in its construction and interpretation? How would history and the work of historians change if historical reconstruction focussed as much on the traces and accounts left by women as on those left by men? History would tell a complete story of the past. Instead of revealing only part of the picture (for example, that only men were interested in responsible government) history that included women would let students understand that men and women worked in conjunction with and in relation to one another.

Including women’s experiences in history curricula extends and changes our understanding of the past, providing a new and different interpretation of the past and a starting place for re-visioning history. Women were active participants in the past, witness the recent front-page article in the Vancouver Sun, January 5, 1998, detailing the recent spate of histories about women warriors. All history needs to reflect women’s participation in its pages so that students may understand the richness of our collective past.

Jane Turner teaches at Burnaby North Secondary School, Burnaby.