Righting A Notable Wrong In History Instruction


Women’s History Month was officially designated thirty-plus years ago, extending and elevating the observance above preceding weeks and days.  There is likely no tabulation of how many Pennsylvanians attended an event, celebration, or commemoration during March.  As for progress in the history books, it turns out an assessment was recently conducted.

A single page in the March 2019 issue of Smithsonianindicates we are a long drive short of the goal line.   Titled “Written Out Of History,” it reported a new study revealing how few women are required reading in America’s schools.  This is hard truth, not fake facts.

In education standards across the 50 states and D.C., there are 178 women listed.  Men outnumber women by a 3-1 ratio.  What is more disconcerting is how many prominent and accomplished women are missing entirely.  How can students come to understand and appreciate the role of women when so many leaders and achievers are MIA from the school curriculum?

Many of the 178 are listed in only one state.  Take for example Emily Roebling of New York. The brief description in Smithsoniannotes “Roebling was instrumental in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in the 1870s, stepping in as surrogate chief engineer after her husband fell ill.  She later earned a law degree.”  Sounds as though she left shards of glass from shattered ceilings in her wake.

In categorizing roles, 39% of the women are described as activists.  Nothing intrinsically wrong there.  Women were front and center in the abolitionist movement.  Then there was the long struggle to achieve voting rights, which we celebrate the 100thanniversary of this year.  But it contrasts with the severe shortchanging of women in other categories.

Science and medicine?  6%.  As we strive to engage more girls in STEM programs, we deny them inspiring examples of women who broke barriers, made astonishing discoveries, and demolished the myth that technical pursuits were outside their interests or beyond their capabilities.  If anyone doubts that we have not yet fully adjusted, think about this – the first all-female spacewalk had to be cancelled recently because there were not two properly-sized spacesuits available.

How about education, one of the professions women have historically dominated?  So few are listed that they are clumped in with pioneers, pilots, and athletes, adding up to a slender 6% combined.  Even though as individuals we can all point to multiple teachers who enlightened and inspired us, collectively we apparently have historical amnesia about the outstanding women in education.

The news gets worse from our Pennsylvania perspective. Though we are the Keystone State in many aspects of history, none of the twelve most frequently cited women are from Pennsylvania.

How could such a list not include Lucretia Mott, ardent abolitionist, fearless women’s rights advocate, and tradition-shattering speaker?  She was one of the Quakers who joined arms with African Americans to found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, just days after being refused leadership in the male-dominated American Society.  That sure strikes as qualifying for national recognition, even without her other equally role-defying actions.

Several years ago, we decided to feature Lucretia Mott in one of our first historical documentaries.  As we were discussing that project and shopping for underwriting support, we raised her name in front of a fair number of well-educated individuals. Her recognition factor was next to nil. Several people asked if she were connected to the applesauce company.  Happily, we completed our antidote for this bout of historical illiteracy.  Our illuminating documentary on Lucretia Mott can be viewed on the Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy website.

The Mott documentary was never intended to be a one and done as far as spotlighting the women who made outsized contributions to Pennsylvania’s development and progress in every field, with the exception of combat.

Consider these prominent women from state history: Ida Tarbell, Hannah Penn, Rebecca Lukens, Nelly Bly, Louisa May Alcott, Katherine Drexel, Sybilla Masters, Mira Lloyd Dock, Lavinia Dock, Ann Preston, Charlotte Forten Grimke, Harriet Forten Purvis, Florence Seibert, Mary Pennington, Genevieve Blatt.  They all warrant higher recognition by students and adults.  They too deserve documentary treatment.  We are ready to proceed the minute underwriting support is committed.

Even with as much reading as I do, I admit having to look up a few of these names.  There are fascinating finds, such as how many women were prominent in business and science, long before popular belief would have it.

We revel in Philadelphia being the birthplace of freedom, with the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution being conceived and brought to life there.  But the soaring rights guaranteed were not available to all, and that too is a lesson of history we need to relearn.

At the heart of the many pushes for women’s equality in recent decades is the desire to have opportunity and pay accorded commensurate with ability and responsibility, not gender.  In a more equal world, accomplishment would be remarkable for its nature and dimension, not gender.

History is different.  The record is there, with all its imbalances and disproportions.  But that record is lesser in content and impact because of the relative exclusion of women, irrespective of whether the slighting is purposeful, careless, or thoughtless.  For notable women to be absent from the curriculum not only shortchanges these pioneers.  It deprives us all of inspirational biographies and a thorough understanding of where we have come from and how we became the America of today.

Want to add greater significance to Women’s History Month? Encourage more families and students to trek and explore.  For people who want to gain a better understanding of women in history, the trail of discovery can start at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York.  Whether your road to enlightenment runs through historic sites or archives, the intriguing discoveries about women will more than justify the effort and gratify the quest to be better informed.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.