But Women’s History Month unintentionally reinforces the prevailing idea that when women do something, it is called “women’s history,” and when men do something it is called “history.” Women’s History Month also allows state school boards and curricular committees to feel as though they are including women without doing enough to update textbooks and state standards, ultimately undermining the very goals that reformers and historians aimed to achieve with the designation.
The limitations of our current approach to women’s history are especially glaring in 2020, the year we mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment and witness record numbers of women running for office. Today, people may be familiar with the names of figures like Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Alice Paul. But they lack a deeper understanding of how women have shaped U.S. history or what U.S. history looks like from the perspective of women.
As we honor the ongoing work of women to gain equal citizenship, it is time to integrate women’s stories more fully into our national narratives and civic memories.
In large part, high school textbooks and state curricular standards are to blame for the sidelining and whitewashing of women’s contributions. In 1909, the leading suffrage organization surveyed history and civics textbooks to see how women were represented. The committee chair reported textbooks taught students “this world has been made by men and for men.” Despite the landmark contributions of generations of women and of historians, and even presidential proclamations to honor women’s history, textbooks and state standards still shortchanged women.
More than a century later, in 2017, the National Women’s History Museum issued a comprehensive report of state curricular standards. The researchers concluded “standards over emphasize women in their domestic roles without placing women’s activities in broader economic, cultural, or political contexts.” The report also found textbooks do not reflect current scholarship and just 15 women are named in more than 10 state standards. No Asian American women are included in any state standards.
Furthermore, as a recent New York Times study documented, textbooks vary widely by state. Students in California may learn, for example, that enslaved women were under constant threat of sexual violence from owners and overseers; students in Texas will not. While today’s textbooks certainly include more diverse perspectives than a generation ago, textbooks still generally present our shared national history as a story by and for white men.
Textbooks barely scratch the surface of the broad-based, multiethnic, coast-to-coast campaign for women’s equality that resulted in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Nor do most explain why the 19th Amendment did not enfranchise many women of color or why African American women in the South were not enfranchised until the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
When textbooks do describe women’s activism, it is generally in tepid terms. Temperance leaders are depicted as Christian do-gooders who detested drunkenness and ribaldry, not as women who could no longer abide being raped by their drunken husbands and who feared the scourge of syphilis. Suffragists, to the extent they are covered at all, tend to be described as women who wanted to clean up politics with their womanly goodness — not as individuals who fundamentally understood that bodily autonomy and political autonomy are two sides of the same coin.
Textbooks also overlook the role of unconventional activists like Helen Hamilton Gardener, to give just one example. In March 1920, five months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, President Woodrow Wilson nominated Gardener to the Civil Service Commission, overseeing nearly 700,000 federal employees. This appointment made Gardener the highest-ranking woman in the federal government and a national symbol of what it meant, finally, for (white) women to be full citizens. In the years leading up to her historic appointment, Gardener had charmed her way into the White House, converted the president into an ally and helped secure congressional passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
Before becoming the suffragists’ lead negotiator in Washington, Gardener was known as the “Harriet Beecher Stowe of Fallen Women” for her bold campaign to raise the age of sexual consent for girls (in 1890, it was 12 or younger in 38 states).
Long before that, she was run out of Sandusky, Ohio, for having an affair with a married man. Ordinarily, such an offense would have been the end of a young woman’s career. But Helen Hamilton Gardener was not ordinary. Rather than retreat in shame, she moved to New York, changed her name and spent the rest of her life fighting for women’s rights.
Today, hardly anyone has heard of Gardener. She appears in no textbooks and no streets or buildings bear her name. Her remarkable story reveals just how little we, as a country, know about women’s contributions and raises the question, what other women have we never heard of?
Women’s History Month was designed to bridge these gaps in knowledge, with the understanding history always has political ramifications in the present. In his presidential proclamation, Jimmy Carter declared “understanding the true history of our country will help us to comprehend the need for full equality under the law for all our people.” He then used the occasion to urge ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
Few understood the political importance of history better than the suffragists, who were in many ways the first historians of women. Generations of women’s rights leaders contributed to the six-volume “History of Woman Suffrage,” which they then sent to schools and libraries across the country, hoping to influence how American history was taught. Just days after congressional passage of the 19th Amendment, Gardener reached out to the Smithsonian Institution to see about organizing a major exhibit on the history of women’s rights so that visitors could come to know the “great women leaders of liberty and civilization.”
But suffragists like Gardener did not want us to remember their names once a year. They wanted to fundamentally rewrite our nation’s history by centering the experiences and contributions of women. Let us honor their legacy by doing just that.