Women Underrepresented in History Textbooks

There’s a prevailing social phenomenon that most people seem to easily recall men’s contributions in society over women’s contributions. According to Joyce Delaney, “There is a noticeable imbalance in the importance given to women as opposed to men’s roles” (Voices Not Heard: Women in a History Textbook). Throughout my research on this topic, I found that people do not know about women in history because textbooks are too brief and reflect dated attitudes that are male-oriented.

Textbooks continually fail to teach us about important women because textbook writers apparently do not want to do the work of reconstructing and reconfiguring our textbooks. Sherrow Pinder said, “We believe that by highlighting female teachers’ perceptions on gender bias present in textbooks, educators might begin to see the inherent need for reconstruction of women’s issues in social studies textbooks used in the United States” (American Multicultural Studies: Diversity of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Sexuality). Clearly, nobody notices the lack of representation at first because we are so encultured to accept male-centric attitudes in our curricula. Statements about women’s achievements are often brief, and women are portrayed as more of the supportive caretakers. The most celebrated accomplishments in history textbooks are usually achievements in war, in which women’s contributions are dramatically underrepresented.  A study by M.K Tetrealt said that “textbooks placed an emphasis on political, diplomatic and military history instead of social history and, as a result, women’s achievements in the private sphere were left out” (Integrating Women’s History: The Case of United States History High School Textbooks). I found this to be interesting. I was surprised publishers would cut out women when they should be included as influential people in history, particularly due to the women’s rights movement. Tetrealt further elaborated that a “study of history textbooks revealed that in one that contains 819 pages, the text allotted to references to women added up to less than one page. A closer look at another publisher’s offering showed that in more than 1,000 pages, there were four illustrations of men for every one of women, and that less than three percent of the text was about women (130).”

Tetrealt’s study also looked into the ways women were described and how their roles were defined in academic textbooks, in particular highlighting Eleanor Roosevelt’s representation in textbooks. “Although these textbooks often ‘present her as a person in her own right’ (Tetreault, 1984, p. 546), the roles most often depicted consisted of Roosevelt caring for her husband, concerned for the unfortunate; most did not emphasize her “female centered activities” ( Tetreault, 1984, p. 546). This is a huge mistake–schoolchildren do not learn about Eleanor’s Roosevelt’s contributions to society and are not informed about her advocacy efforts.  This gender bias blocks knowledge and creates ignorance in school curricula, centering learning around male contributions and neglecting to recognize women for fighting for voting rights and the opportunity for women to actively participate in democracy.

Ways in which publishers continue to promote a male-centered curriculum in textbooks is by denying the problem even exists. Teachers have to stick to outdated guidelines because administrators continue to purchase textbooks that are lacking in a complete and inclusive version of history. “Textbook editors and authors (many of whom are historians from colleges and research universities) bemoan the fact that they must curb their desire for change because conservative state or local boards of education control the choice of textbooks…” says Judith Zinsser (History and Feminism: A Glass Half Full). Parents, students and faculty have little to no control over what is bought and used in their schools because boards of education make these curriculum decisions. Most local boards of education or state boards are conservative with their academic choices. Concerned consumers should join these organizations, go to their meetings to voice their concerns, and not be apathetic about the situational status quo regarding women’s representation in textbooks. Things will never change without reaction and action around these books. Teachers should be encouraged to share a diverse view of history that is not more slanted to male leaders, and also focuses on influential women leaders.

All things considered, unless consumers and educators campaign for more inclusive textbooks, male-oriented history textbooks will continue to cause misconceptions around the roles and contributions of women. Women, parents and educators must be willing to stand up to the dated and gendered ideas printed in today’s textbooks. Women have brought about fundamental changes in society and their contributions should not be ignored.

                            Eleanore Roosevelt

8 thoughts on “Women Underrepresented in History Textbooks

  1. We are so glad to find the Women’s Center!!! The Women’s Journey Foundation (WJF) is a 501c3 non-profit organization in California. We are a 100% volunteer operated organization. The WJF hosts events & programs and creates educational materials ie. quizzes and flash cards. Because less than 5% of educational materials include Women in American History we are passionate about teaching young people about women’s achievements and contributions. When we conduct interviews with younger people ages 8 to 18 and college age students, 90% of the time they cannot name one single woman. This is a problem! Two of our favorite quotes are…”Every time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worthless.” and “If we want our girls to benefit from the courage and wisdom of the women who came before them, we have to share their stories.” The WJF recently won first place at a 4th of July parade in Huntington Beach CA (the largest west of the Mississippi) as Best Historical Representation. Much of the crowd cheered for us; yet there were many that did not understand our message. ABC 7 Eyewitness News covered this parade nationally. Each parade entry was announced and captions added. But as we approached the cameras, they cut to the crowd of people for a meaningless interview and returned promptly back just after we made our way past the cameras. Now while we don’t know if that was intentional, our fans and supporters saw it and read into it as such. But this is indicative of how women’s contributions and achievements have been marginalized throughout history. We still have a lot of work to do. I would love to send you some of our photos. Women and girls of all ages and ethnicity represented women in American History from Harriet Tubman and Sojorner Truth to Gloria Steinem and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We were proud to represent over 20 different historical characters.


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