Op-Ed: Missing Herstory – A critique of school textbooks

Mar. 6, 2020 / By

Missing Herstory - A critique of school textbooks Deck: If represented at all in history books, women are likely presented to young minds as promiscuous, overspending, and troublesome.

Graphic by Yesenia Pacheco



There is an extreme lack of female content in history books. Students attending California school districts are required to learn about four major eras essential to the foundation of America: colonization, The Great Depression, The Civil War, and World War II. Throughout these events we notice two patterns, white men are American heroes and women must not have existed. 

 

Throughout my years attending the Long Beach Unified School District, I cannot recall learning about as many key women as there were men.

 

Harriet Tubman was one, and in fact the only one who got more than a paragraph. There was a chapter on Mother Teresa, but my history teachers didn’t feel the need to include her into our curriculum. 

 

The majority of women’s accomplishments are erased from our students’ textbooks and those who remain do not share the shame glory as their male counterparts.

 

As a sophomore in high school, I remember being taught that Marie Antoinette was the sole reason for King Louis XVI’s downfall and was single handedly to blame for the French revolution. This wasn’t because my teacher was a woman-hater, this was simply how the book presented her. It wasn’t until I did my own research that I found this to be a universal belief.

 

Marie Antoinette is known as a symbol for greed, extravagance, and everything wrong with monarchy. Although she wasn’t a charitable woman, she was not how historians portray her.

 

“At least four members of the royal family spent more on clothing than she did—including Louis XVI’s brother the comte d’Artois, who ordered 365 pairs of shoes per year,” according to Becky Little of National Geographic.

 

Arguably the most iconic woman in history is Cleopatra, the last pharaoh in Egypt. A strong woman that ruled with a strong fist, surely she’s represented as such? No, when most people think of Cleopatra they picture a treacherous whore who slept her way to power. The film and media adaptations of her definitely don’t help.

 

The real Cleopatra wasn’t as gorgeous as historians keep fixating on. (Why is her beauty your main focus, historians?)

 

She really only had two lovers in her lifetime, which isn’t that much considering the era and is even pretty low for today’s standards.

 

Cleopatra was not a sex symbol and should not be remembered as such. Her legacy should be connected to her ability to flourish Egypt’s economy through trade and her intellect in philosophy, public speaking and having known about a dozen languages — not because of who she slept with.

 

Although there are units covering the civil rights era (as short as those chapters may be) the only names that seemingly stick to memory are Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Black history is outlined but never given any special attention in the classroom, unless it’s black history month. So if black history itself isn’t made a focal point in the classroom, then the history of black women is almost non-existent.

 

Yes, Rosa Parks is mentioned but only briefly for the incident where she refused to give up her seat on the bus and was then arrested. What isn’t included in the textbooks I read was Parks being a NAACP youth leader in 1943, as well as being secretary to then-NAACP President E.D. Nixon. 

 

Claudette Colvin is another name missing from American history curricula, which is unfortunate because it was her actions that inspired Rosa Parks to refuse to get up from her seat (something that 15-year-old Colvin did nine months earlier).

 

She, too, was arrested and is often neglected from history books altogether.

 

If represented at all in history books, women are likely presented to young minds as promiscuous, overspending, and troublesome.

 

If the authors of these textbooks were asked to summarize their views of women throughout history, they would likely shrug and promote the popular misconception that women be shopping

 

I don’t know what it will take to change curricula districtwide, let alone statewide, but encourage family members and friends to teach about strong women in history. Feel free to even share these resources below with your teacher. Here are some resources to get started:

 

1. Social Media Education

Many social media accounts make posts shining a light on lesser-known women in history.

 

Twitter user @vintagexpost posts threads covering the lives of famous actors and rulers. It’s easy reading to pass the time, accessible, and her commentary is very entertaining.


On Instagram, @feminist.herstory posts photographs of influential women many of us have never seen in a textbook: Scientists, war heroes, and iconic women from all eras worldwide.

 

 

View this post on Instagram

 

Famed American sharp shooter Annie Oakley shows off her reverse shot, 1888. Twice Oakley attempted to enlist her services to aid the United States military in 1898 during the Spanish American war and again in 1917 when the United States joined their allies to fight in WWI. She never received a response to her letters sent to the President and Secretary of War offering to train a regimen of female sharp shooters. “When a man hits a target they call him a marksman. When I hit a target they call it a trick. Never did like that much.” — Annie Oakley via @misfithistory #annieoakley #history #womenshistory #sharpshooter #oldwest #americanhistory #instagood #picoftheday #misfithistory

A post shared by Women In History (@feminist.herstory) on

 

The instagram account @bayarealesbianarchives is an organization that has made it their responsibility to share publicly the lesbian history of the bay area, the most diverse lesbian community, in hopes to preserve and restore its cultural impact.


The Instagram account @race_women praises black women who as early as the Suffrage Movement promoted feminist ideals, giving shoutouts to the most prominent, outspoken black women of that era, forgotten by our education system.

 

 

2. Podcasts

Podcasts are increasing in popularity and offer a platform for those curious in women’s history to listen-in on the full story of many women.

 

One of my personal favorites are The History Chicks available on Spotify and Apple podcasts. Each episode they cover an important woman in history in a very detailed, biographical style. They obtain as much detail as they can find, but as you’ll see most women of history have no records of their accomplishments — or even birth! 

 

3. Children’s Books

Parents can begin teaching at home with the many different children book series covering influential women. Consider:

 

  • Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World by Vashti Harrrison
  • A Is for Awesome!: 23 Iconic Women Who Changed the World by Eva Chen and Derek Desierto
  • 101 Awesome Women Who Changed Our World by Julia Adams.

 

SEVEN YOUNG WOMEN FROM ACROSS CALIFORNIA ENGAGED IN YLI’S CALAFIA FELLOWSHIP TO PRODUCE A MAGAZINE CENTERING INTERSECTIONAL FEMINISM.
THIS IS JUST ONE OF THE MANY STORIES PUBLISHED IN THE ‘ZINE – ARTICLES THAT TAKE ON ISSUES SUCH AS: STREET HARASSMENT, GENDER NORMS, BEAUTY AND IDENTITY, QUEER ISSUES, WOMEN’S HISTORY IN CLASSROOMS, AND WOMEN FARMERS.

 

DOWNLOAD A DIGITAL COPY HERE, AND CONTACT MICHAEL LOZANO FOR A PRINT EDITION.

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Yesenia Pacheco

Yesenia Pacheco

Yesenia is a Polytechnic High School student who is also the editor-in-chief in the journalism class. She enjoys listening to Michael Jackson.