Featured: Women in World History - Resources

August 1, 2016

Here's a thought-exercise for World History teachers. It came out of conversations at the ORIAS summer institute on Women in World History, based on an assignment described by one of our presenters:

How would your curriculum change if your default historical subjects were women, rather than men?

  • Regarding the origins of settled agriculture, how long would you spend discussing the relative benefits of birth-spacing versus having large families?
  • How would you assess the value of Athenian democracy?

  • What would you teach students about interpreting written documents? What would you say about the societal role of literacy?

  • Would property rights and marriage laws edge out professional status and voting rights in classroom discussions about power?

  • How would you describe the protagonists' motives in narratives of long-distance trade and imperial conquest?

  • What changes would you highlight in teaching about industrialization and the republican revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries?

Of course, these are not new sorts of questions. Histories of "everyday people" and subaltern histories challenge traditional narratives, reframing events, political structures, social categories, and philosophical ideals in myriad ways. Many teachers already work to incorporate these various lenses into their courses.

In a similar spirit, the goal of this exercise is not to write men out of the past. Rather, the point is to highlight the way gender already colors every aspect of what we teach in a social studies classroom, from the structure of our units, to the weight we give specific events, to the ways we teach students to think about sources. It illustrates the pervasiveness of a particular sort of generically masculine character as the invisible subject of much classroom (and textbook) discourse. This is especially evident in a World History context, where required curricular content can feel infinite and teaching time is always at a premium.  

It is tough to fit new material into an established course and even harder to alter a curriculum's basic structure. On the other hand, women and girls make up at least 50% of most classroom populations. ORIAS received lots of inquiries about this year's summer institute because so many teachers are actively looking for strategies to bring women in from the curricular edges, where the "If we have time" lessons generally reside.

For me, the most positive takeaway of the ORIAS summer institute on Women in World History was the graphic illustration that this is not a zero-sum game, in which one set of students can win only if the others lose. For example, Beverly Bossler's presentation, "Women in Late Imperial China" imparted a nuanced view of the relationship between Confucian philosophy, personal behavior, and the late imperial state. She used women's experiences as a tool to explain the connection between state power and invididual behavior, to highlight differences between the lives of elites and commoners, and to show ways Han people differentiated themselves from their Manchu conquerors in the Qing dynasty. All of these topics were accessed through questions about how women were expected to behave, how women actually behaved, and how we know the answers to either of those questions. Nothing was sacrificed, a lot was gained.

Collectively, the talks showed that lessons incorporating gender are useful in the social studies classroom. Visual, textual, and material depictions of masculinity and femininity (and non-binary genders) can do double- and triple-duty to elucidate a wide range of concepts across time and space.

So is historical information about women's lives available? Can you build gender analysis into your teaching, without adding an additional school year's worth of material to your school year? Is there a universal benefit to doing so?

The speakers at our summer institute on Women in World History answered all these questions with a resounding Yes. They amply demonstrated the possibilities through their presentations. We invite you to use their post-presentation video interviews to experiment in your own classes. Each video is accompanied by a guiding question you might use to focus your lesson, along with a handful of background resources. 

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