By Jim Mamer / Original to ScheerPost
One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.
– Simone de Beauvoir “The Second Sex” (1949)
I was brainwashed at a very young age to accept the unacceptable. In elementary school I was taught to accept the term “mankind” as a synonym for “humanity.” When we learned about the Declaration of Independence, I was told, and I believed, that when Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal,” he meant that all people were created equal.
It was never true, but that fact should have been transparent — even to kids. Is it not clear that Thomas Jefferson meant men, not women, and that he didn’t even mean “all men?” Not enslaved African men, not any of the Indigenous men, not anybody but white men who owned property and paid taxes and who, in 1776, amounted to about 6% of the population.
I remember, at least once, in 6th or 7th grade, the issue turned into questions. Why does Jefferson only say that men are created equal? Does that mean that women are not equal? For once, our teacher agreed that Jefferson meant men, but she assured us that, now it means everyone. Maybe she believed it.
As I began to apply the concept of “missing links” to the treatment of women in high school history books, I quickly realized that the problem extended well beyond high school. Men dominate almost all history, and the fact that pointing this out is not more effective reflects, at least partly, the ubiquitous acceptance of “mankind” for “humanity.”
Over the past 50 years this problem has been studied and faithfully documented. There is no doubt that men and women are not represented equally in recorded history. In “How much of the sky? Women in American high school history textbooks from the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s,” an article published in 2004, the authors carefully compare decades of studies on women’s visibility in high school history texts. The evidence is presented in impressive descriptive statistics:
We found evidence to support the assertion made by Trecker about 1960s textbooks, Tetreault about early 1980s textbooks, and by Sadker and Sadker about early 1990s textbooks, that women have received much less attention than men in popular American history texts for high school students. We found only 1,335 female names in the indexes of the 18 books of our main analyses, as compared to 12,382 male names (a ratio of about 11 to 100). There were 616 pictures of women who were named in the caption of an image, while there were 3,505 pictures of named men, which is a ratio of about 18 to 100. Of the 7,958 images in which we could discern a gendered human, only 2,889, or about one third, involved images of women or girls.
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Reasons Behind Male Bias
Of course, there is more than one reason for male bias in textbooks. The first is represented by the quote that begins this column In “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir writes about the distinction between sex and gender, and the quote reflects both her study of socially constructed gender identity and her analysis of gender inequality.
In the introduction she writes, “No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society; it is civilization as a whole that produces this creature… In industry and politics men have a great many more positions and they monopolize the most important posts. In addition to all this, they enjoy a traditional prestige that the education of children tends in every way to support, for the present enshrines the past – and in the past all history has been made by men.”
“It is easy,” she continues, “to see that the duality of the sexes, like any duality, gives rise to conflict. And doubtless the winner will assume the status of absolute.” So, men, seen as being absolute, are not simply one side of a duality, but the universal standard for what it means to be human.
In the article “Where are the Women?” It is suggested that textbooks tend to emphasize events from political, business and military history where, traditionally, women have played much smaller roles. Of course, it is also important to emphasize that throughout American history, women have been overtly excluded, by law and custom, from participation in many areas of life outside the home.
Phyllis Arlow and Merle Froschl published an article in 1975 that examined the content of 14 textbooks for such things as the coverage given women, the inclusion of minority women and the choice of illustrations. Then they concentrated their report in four areas: the colonial period; the rights and reform movements; women and work; and contemporary America.
I use the same categories to organize what follows to make comparisons among the findings of others and my own. I will also identify textbook “missing links” in how women are presented and then suggest some of which deserve inclusion..
The Colonial and Revolutionary periods
“Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”
– Abigail Adams in a letter to her husband (1776)
Among the few women mentioned in texts studied by Arlow and Froschl are Abigail Adams (as the wife of John Adams), Anne Hutchinson (as a Puritan reformer), Elizabeth Poole (as founder the town of Taunton, Massachusetts) and Anne Bradstreet (as the first colonial poet to be published).
In the newer texts only two of these women continue to be mentioned: Abigail Adams is mentioned in The Americans in two sidebars, both with a reference to a letter to her husband. Anne Hutchinson is mentioned in History Alive! Pursuing American Ideals in a sidebar.
Over the years, in my use of at least four post-1975 textbooks, Abigail Adams was mentioned in all of them, but always in connection to the letter she wrote to her husband, John Adams, on March 31, 1776. In that letter (famously referred to as “Remember the Ladies”) she wrote:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.”
What is noticeably absent in all of the textbooks is the response that John Adams wrote to his wife on April 14, 1776. His response has never been difficult to find and it contains a lot that would be of interest to high school students. He wrote:
“As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient — that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent — that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented…. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.”
John Adams was not the only founder in the habit of slighting women. In 1791, in his capacity as Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton presented to Congress his “Report on Manufactures.” In it he argued that the United States could become economically self-sufficient by developing its textile manufacture. “To do this,” Hamilton wrote, “Americans would have to rely on their most pliable resources: water, women, and children.”
Arlow and Froschl reported that, “Colonial women participated in a variety of activities including medicine, farming, business and arms bearing. Yet there is little information in most texts concerning the women in early America.” The fact these women remain anonymous leaves us with a few questions for discussion with students. Why are these women anonymous? Who were they? Why did Hamilton refer to them as “pliable resources?” And what should be reported about their undeniable contributions?
Instead of dealing with questions like these, publishers seem to search for individual names of noncontroversial women to insert in their textbooks, the result being that some of the women mentioned are erroneously credited with something significant. The most common example is Betsy Ross, who, although a real American seamstress and upholsterer, had nothing to do with the first American flag. Some historians attribute the design to Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress, but when he sought payment from the Board of Admiralty for his design of the flag his petition for payment was denied on the grounds that “he was not the only one consulted” on the design. The seamstress who did the sewing is unknown.
Other women, also mentioned by name, seem to have done very little other than being noncontroversial: Mary Chilton has been identified as the first person to step foot in North America when the Mayflower arrived in North America and Mary Rowlandson has been mentioned as having been kidnapped by Native Americans and held for ransom in 1675.
It would be more effective to examine the common fates of groups of colonial women. For example, the colonists who came to New England in the 1630s came from a tradition where men, not women, did the weaving. Of course, they brought this tradition with them, but as other opportunities appeared for men, weaving became a female occupation.
Girls from poor families were often “… boarded out to live with another family, where [their] spinning labor paid for room and board, and sometimes allowed [them] to accrue extra yarn to put toward a trousseau.” Weaving day in and day out was not easy work and there were rebellions, but I’ve not seen them mentioned in any textbook.
Colonial women also played a central, but again anonymous, role in medicine. “They acted as midwives, healers and apothecaries and drew on a variety of cultural traditions to do so… Women practiced as midwives, as paid practitioners called ‘doctoresses, and as unpaid community healers and drug makers…”
They played vital roles during the revolutionary war serving in the Army as nurses, seamstresses and cooks. They also served in combat either alongside their husbands or disguised as men. Others operated as spies. In many cases, when these facts are mentioned, the women remain anonymous, despite the fact that names are available.
In 1778, Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man using the alias of Robert Shurtliff, the name of her deceased brother, to fight in the Continental Army. When she was wounded in her thigh and forehead, she feared her identity would be revealed during medical care. “She permitted physicians to treat her head wound and then slipped out of the field hospital unnoticed, where she extracted one of the bullets from her thigh with a penknife and sewing needle.”
Nancy Morgan Hart disguised herself as a man to obtain intelligence on the British. In a Wikipedia notation, her occupations are listed as “spy and housewife,” in that order.
Being both female and Black, enslaved African women faced both racism and sexism. Nevertheless, some of them played significant roles. Phillis Wheatley, born in Africa, was kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight before being transported to North America. She is the first formerly enslaved African to write books of published poetry. In History Alive! she is mentioned in one paragraph that ends with the comment that “freedom did not establish equality because, like American Indians, blacks were viewed as inferior to whites.”
Ellen Craft, was born in 1826 to Maria, a mixed-race enslaved woman, and her wealthy owner, James Smith. In 1848, Ellen, dressed as a man, passed as white to escape slavery with her enslaved husband. The couple became well known abolitionists, but eventually they moved to England to avoid bounty hunters. I have never seen Ellen Craft mentioned in a textbook.
Sally Hemings, who is not mentioned in any of the examined texts, was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson after she was inherited from his father-in-law. She reportedly had six children by Jefferson and remained enslaved in his house until his death in 1826.
Most enslaved women, of course, remained unnamed. In the agrarian southern colonies, at the very least, enslaved women provided labor such as planting, doing chores, taking care of children, cooking, and laundering.
Owners of enslaved women were sometimes known to coerce them into sexual relations with enslaved men to increase the number of slaves without incurring the cost of purchase. These plantation owners were also known to rape enslaved females. And any children born of these encounters were born into slavery and most would spend their lives working in bondage.
One would think such information is important enough to deserve mention in history textbooks. Students need to understand the unmitigated cruelty of descent-based slavery, and because, as unpaid labor, these women increased their “owners” wealth exponentially.
Rights and Reform Movements
“In discussing the rights of woman, we are to consider, first, what belongs to her as an individual, in a world of her own, the arbiter of her own destiny…”
– Elizabeth Cady Stanton “The Solitude of Self” 1892
Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were dedicated abolitionists. In 1840, they were sent as official delegates to the anti-slavery convention in London. Remarkably, the organizers of that convention denied official standing to all women, which prevented their participation. After returning to the United States, Mott and Stanton organized a woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
In almost every high school textbook (old and new) the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention marks the beginning of the women’s rights movement in the United States. Nevertheless, much of what is said regarding that convention is very brief and communicates only that the convention existed, rather than providing information relevant, insightful, and necessary to academic understanding.
Here is an excerpt from one of older texts used in the Arlow and Froschl study: “Hence in 1848 Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton called a women’s convention, which met in Seneca Falls, New York. The delegates resolved that all men and women were created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights.”
That is not very different from what I found in “The Americans:” “Before the convention started, Stanton and Mott composed an agenda and a detailed statement of grievances. The participants approved all parts of the declaration unanimously — except one … The one exception, which still passed with a narrow majority, was the resolution calling for women to have the right to vote.”
In “History Alive!” the only real addition to what is quoted above is presented in a sidebar next to a photo of Stanton, and its only purpose seems to be to remind students that those at the convention had a long struggle ahead: “Many men, and some women, believed that women already enjoyed political rights through their husbands and should remain focused on home and family.”
Such summary statements manage to avoid any detail interesting enough to be discussed. The publishers could have done much better if they had simply included parts of that “detailed statement of grievances” composed by Stanton and Mott. For years I used these excerpts to provoke discussion. It worked.
The statement of grievances is found at the end of the Declaration of Sentiments which was written in the style of the Declaration of Independence. The grievances begin: “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.”
The many facts, then listed, include the following:
* He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.
* He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men — both natives and foreigners.
* He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
* He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
* He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration.
* He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction, which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.
One has to wonder why these textbooks provide the information they do and fail to provide what they decide not to include. Why is this struggle for suffrage not as important as the detailed coverage of various wars or the pages of illustrations showing fashion trends or flappers dancing the Charleston?
The Struggle Continues and the 14th Amendment
Although Susan B. Anthony is likely to be the most well-known suffragist, both of the newer textbooks do little more than mention her name. For example, in “History Alive!” she is mentioned only once in this sentence, “In the years following the Seneca Falls convention, reformers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony continue to struggle for women’s rights.”
In “The Americans” she is mentioned four times, but three of these are of very little value basically repeating that she, and many other women, “worked tirelessly for women’s voting rights.” She is given the most attention in a sidebar that briefly reports in this order, that she: lectured on women’s rights, founded the National Woman Suffrage Association with Stanton in 1869, illegally voted in the 1872 presidential election, died in 1906, and her image is now on a one-dollar coin. Really, you can’t make this stuff up.
Here is some of what should have been included if the publishers wished to provide interest and provoke discussion:
Susan B. Anthony, like many other suffragists, grew up in a family of abolitionists. Her mother and sister had gone to the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls which led to her meet both Stanton and Mott.
She was in her 30s when she directed a campaign to collect signatures to submit to the New York legislature in support of three reforms: 1) that women can control their own earnings; 2) that women can maintain guardianship of children in case of divorce; 3) the vote. When she presented the signatures to the Assembly, she was greeted with laughter.
Unwilling to give up, she continued the campaign and in 1860 returned to the New York State Capitol to address a joint session of both houses from the Speaker’s desk. This time there was no laughter,, and the bill she advocated was approved, giving New York women the right to own property, collect their own wages, and sue in court.
The famous partnership between Anthony and Stanton solidified soon afterward, and they worked with countless others, including the extraordinary Sojourner Truth, often participating in the women’s rights conventions held all over the country after 1848.
The end of the Civil War, of course, brought with it the question of suffrage for the formerly enslaved. Many women’s rights leaders hoped that in enlarging the electorate, women would be included. Unfortunately, the early wording of the proposed Fourteenth Amendment tied the word “male” to the term “citizen.” The struggle to reword that proposal occupied much of the next two years for thousands of women.
In that context Anthony voted illegally in 1872. She was tried and convicted, after which she addressed the court. Here is one part of what she said:
“It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty, but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity, but to the whole people – women as well as men.”
I have yet to see anything from this speech in a high school textbook.
The 20th Century
By this time, the textbook authors, or publishers, seem to have lost interest in continuing to report on the suffrage movement. In the interest of space, I will provide a brief survey of events necessary to begin to understand the history of the movement in the 20th century. To be fair, some of the textbooks briefly pick up the narrative near the end of WWI, right before adoption of the 19th Amendment, but it is not enough.
If anyone wants more, I suggest you consult the comprehensive “Century of Struggle” written by Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick.
* By 1890, Susan B. Anthony was 70 years old and Elizabeth Cady Stanton 75. Leadership of the movement began to pass to Carrie Chapman Catt and Dr. Anna Howard Shaw.
* In 1900, Catt replaced Anthony as president of NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association). She left that position in 1904 to lead the International Woman Suffrage Alliance and Shaw become the president of the national association. Catt is mentioned (barely) in both of the newer books. Shaw is not.
* By the 20th century, the push for women’s rights had become international. When a young Alice Paul moved to England in 1907 to pursue her studies, she became part of the British suffrage movement. There she met Lucy Burns, another American studying in Europe. As part of the British movement, both women were jailed, went on hunger strikes, and suffered forced feeding.
* In 1910, Alice Paul returned to the U.S., finishing her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. Burns returned a little later, but by January 1913 they were able to organize a parade of about 5,000 women on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
* In January 1913, African-American suffragist and anti-lynching journalist Ida B. Wells, with her colleague Belle Squire, founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago to give voice to African-American women who had been excluded from the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
* On the day of the 1913 march, the head of the Illinois delegation told the Wells delegates that the NAWSA wanted “to keep the delegation entirely white.” All African-American suffragists, including Wells, were to walk at the end of the parade in a “colored delegation.” She refused to take part in the march. Half-way through, she emerged from the crowd to take her place at the front of the Illinois delegation.
* Women in that march were attacked by onlookers (mostly men) and had to fight their way up Pennsylvania Avenue. All this attracted a great deal of attention and additional support. There are numerous photos of this march.
* As a result of the additional support, on July 31, 1913, an automobile procession to the Capitol presented a group of senators with suffrage petitions carrying 200,000 signatures.
* In 1915 Carrie Catt resumed the NAWSA presidency and during the next five years faced strategic challenges from women led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. These younger militants focused on a constitutional amendment and favored strategic confrontations with government, as they had experienced in Britain. NAWSA continued to focus on state-by-state campaigns.
* Due to these differences Paul and Burns founded the Congressional Union (CU) as an organization separate from NAWSA. The CU insisted on holding “the party in power” (meaning Wilson and the Democrats) responsible for failure to pass the suffrage bill.
* By 1917, as the Congressional Union transformed itself into the National Women’s Party, they adopted tactics learned from the British militants leading to, among other things, placing silent picket lines in front of the White House.
* The women on the picket line were harassed, beaten, and repeatedly arrested. They were taken to jail where conditions were horrible. In October 1917, Alice Paul and others went on a hunger strike to protest their illegal imprisonment. In response, prison guards restrained them and force-fed them through tubes. Alice Paul is mentioned on only two pages in both “The Americans” and “History Alive!” Neither text mentions that she was arrested seven times.
* By 1918, President Wilson, cautiously and belatedly, came to support the women’s suffrage amendment. On Sept. 30 of that year, he delivered a brief speech to the Senate, calling it “a vital wartime measure.”
* In 1920, the 19th Amendment became part of the US Constitution.
Without specific knowledge of the work done in the 20th Century by Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Ida B. Wells and her Alpha Suffrage Club, all the participants in the 1913 Women’s March, and all the members of the National Women’s Party who stood silently in front of Wilson’s White House and suffered through imprisonment and forced feeding, students can’t begin to understand the price paid for this one step toward gender equality in the United States.
Women and Work
“The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”
– Rose Schneiderman (1911)
Between 1880 and 1910,”the number of women employed in the United States increased from 2.6 million to 7.8 million. Although women began to be employed in business and industry, the majority of better paying positions continued to go to men.” Before World War I, “75% of all women employed in manufacturing were making apparel or apparel materials, tobacco products, or food.”
In the 1975 study by Arlow and Froschl they report that, “Textbooks almost totally neglect the whole question of women’s work and women’s role in the early labor movement.”
In the newer texts, coverage of the labor movement, and women’s role in it is more extensive and usually better. In “The Americans,” there is a separate section devoted to “Women in the Labor Movement.” In it there is an emphasis on the organizer Mary Harris “Mother” Jones reporting that, “In 1903, to expose the cruelties of child labor, she led 80 mill children, many with hideous deformities and injuries, on a march to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt. Their crusade gained widespread publicity and influenced the passage of child labor laws.”
“The Americans” also reports on the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, writing that “The massive 1909 strike by the makers of tailored women’s blouses, also known as shirtwaists, won labor agreements for some strikers but did nothing to change the deplorable working conditions.”
That leads to a short explanation of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in 1911 which caused the death of 146 of the 500 workers trapped inside the building by locked doors.
In History Alive! the discussion of women in the early labor movement is also given separate space. It begins with Rose Schneiderman and her role with the Women’s Trade Union League organizing the 1909 strike referred to above.
Her speech following the Triangle fire is quoted: “This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers… it is up to the working people to save themselves…. by a strong working-class movement.”
Unfortunately, History Alive! does not report on Schneiderman’s life after the early 20th century, when she became a friend and advisor to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, teaching them much of what they knew about working people. She also played a key role in shaping the landmark legislation of the New Deal: The National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The authors of History Alive! mention the horrible conditions of the working class, but can’t help but include misleading statements falsely suggesting progress. In this case they write that, “…unlike today, worker safety was not of great concern.” The truth is that, despite some temporary improvement, the horrible conditions of the working-class continue uninterrupted. Men, women and children continue to suffer both inside and outside the borders of the United States.
What they should have reported is available, but as of now it must be found outside the textbooks. In this case the information is from the aforementioned excellent Sofi Thanhauser book, “Worn: A People’s History of Clothing:”
Between 1972 and 1991, the number of workers in U.S. manufacturing is estimated to have dropped by 7 percent… although textile workers in the U.S. had been largely thwarted in their efforts to unionize… garment workers had enjoyed quality, union work for two mid-century generations. Now sweatshops reemerged…
In 1995 a raid by California and federal authorities on an apartment complex in El Monte, east of Los Angeles, revealed 70 trafficked Thai nationals being held against their will, producing garments for American name brands.
Even worse, large U.S. retailers have moved to bypass domestic manufacturers by moving production to export processing zones where they can hide behind anonymous subcontracting arrangements. In 1998, Thanhauser reports, a garment worker, usually a woman, in the export processing zones in central America, made an average of 56 cents an hour.
“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
– Congressional Representative Cori Bush on advocating ERA ratification
The final area of focus in the Arlow and Froschl study is Contemporary America. They report that in the 1975 textbooks, “There is little or no information on the current legal challenges to discriminatory laws, nor any discussion of how the law affects women in general. In addition, one of the greatest battles of the early 20th century, the crusade for birth control, is glaringly omitted.” That statement fits perfectly what I’ve found in newer textbooks.
In 1923, three years after the 19th Amendment was ratified, Alice Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and spent the rest of her life fighting for its ratification. It is quite brief: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” Alice Paul died in 1977.
In the 1970s the ERA was ratified by 35 states. But by the congressionally set 1982 deadline the Amendment was still three states short of the 38 needed to become part of the Constitution.
There are, of course, women still fighting for women’s rights. An article in Elle magazine published on March 23, 2023 began with this: “Rosie Couture remained unfazed as she stood outside the Capitol on January 5, holding a giant canvas that read “ERA NOW” in green and pink letters.”
Ms. Couture, now at Harvard, is co-founder, with her high school classmate, Belan Yeshigeta, of Generation Ratify, an organization working to advance gender equality.
When interviewed about why they started the organization, Yeshigeta, now at Columbia, said, “I was quite floored, I can pretty confidently say it just does not come up in our schools right now, and that’s really a shame.”
Unfortunately, it is quite easy to imagine that the current struggle for women’s rights, which includes the fight over a woman’s right to control her own body and the need to ratify the ERA, does not come up in schools.
As Ms. Yeshigeta said, that’s really a shame.
Editor’s note: The spelling within pulled quotes from older documents may appear inaccurate but remain unaltered from their original composition.
Jim Mamer is a retired high school teacher. He was a William Robertson Coe Fellow for study of United States History at Stanford University in 1984. He served as History/Social Science department chair for 20 years and was a mentor teacher in both Modern American History and Student Assessment. In 1992 he was named a Social Science/History Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS).