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Push for Women's History in Schools

Source: Associated Press


ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) -- Each fall, as Doris Meadows begins another year of teaching 11th-grade history, she gives her new students a task: Compose three lists of famous Americans in history.

No one has trouble filling up the first category -- famous white men. But when it comes to naming women and blacks for the other open-ended lists, nearly all her students come up short.

``They can't make it to 10,'' said Meadows, a teacher at Joseph Wilson Magnet High School in Rochester.

How to work women's history into high school teaching is one of the main topics of debate at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. The annual three-day forum, which opened Friday at the University of Rochester, drew 1,300 scholars, including 170 from abroad.

At Stanford University in 1972, Meadows taught one of the first college classes in women's history. When she was hired 12 years ago by Wilson Magnet, a public school, ``it was kind of a natural progression for me to try to bring that knowledge into my classroom,'' she said.

History courses that put the spotlight on women and re-examine the past through the prism of gender are now commonplace on American college campuses. Over the past two decades, historians have been integrating that discipline's insights into their teaching and writing.

Still, many high school textbooks mention ``the big events, like women's suffrage, and then it tends to be episodic,'' Meadows said. ``To learn from history, people need to know the full story, not just the list of presidents.''

One of the panelists for this weekend's event is Sally Schwager, director of the Women's History Institute at Harvard. Since 1985, she has conducted a teacher's program to help high schools find ways to make history ``much more inclusive, not just for women but different races, social classes and religions.''

Women's history ``began as a project of putting women back into history'' but has flowered into an academic specialty that's had ``an incredible impact on history, in rethinking questions and offering new interpretations,'' said Eileen Boris, a women and gender studies professor at the University of Virginia.

Changing the way history is taught in high schools ``is the last thing to happen, the most difficult to effect,'' said Leila Rupp, a history professor at Ohio State University who edits the Journal of Women's History.

Often, the impetus for altering the perspective in high school history projects comes from students themselves, Rupp said.

Rather than encourage ``a supermarket attitude'' -- where students hop from one group in society to the next -- Meadows says she emphasizes that ``what we have is one large history, and it's important to see the connections.''

High schools present special difficulties -- time constraints, an apparent drift toward ever-smaller course books and ``politically driven'' battles over what textbook writers choose to include or exclude, she said.

But giving students broader glimpses at the past becomes critical, she said, because ``history provides us models for how people have lived before us and what the human possibilities are.''

In Meadow's class, by the end of the year, her students have a much greater appreciation for the contributions that both women and minorities have made to U.S. history.

``The last week of school, I do the exercise over again and they all just start laughing because now they can do tons,'' she said. ``If the kids leave my class without being able to do that list, I am not doing my job.''