We’re in the midst of Women’s History Month and just celebrated another International Women’s Day. Learning about the courage, strength and achievements of strong female historical figures like Ida B. Wells, Noor Inayat Khan, and Shirley Chisholm has been inspiring. It reminds me that I, too, can aspire to achieve anything I want. That achieving great things is not limited to one gender.
It’s easy to forget that women’s history is a relatively new area of study – less than a century old. It wasn’t until the 1970s that women’s studies became an academic discipline.
The fact is our history classes are still disproportionately teaching the stories of male historical figures.
A study by the National Museum of Women’s History found that fewer than 25% of Americans are familiar with major female historical figures like Elizabeth Blackwell, Ida B. Wells and Sybil Ludington (if you don’t know these ladies, look these them up – they’re awesome!). However, their male counterparts (Jonas Salk, Frederick Douglass and Paul Revere) are recognized by most of us.
This lack of representation matters – for both genders.
Not only do women and girls underestimate their own abilities and ambitions, it has also allowed men to underestimate and undervalue women’s role in society.
In this interview with Jeffery Mishlove for “Thinking Allowed,” Gerda Lerner, a pioneer in the study of women’s history, explains why learning about women’s history is important for everyone.
One of my favorite parts of the interview is when Mishlove says:
“As I was preparing for this interview I was reading your book with my wife today and she asked me, she said, ‘Imagine what it would be like for you as a male if all the history you read was about the great achievements of women. That you never read about any great male achievements.’ And I have to say, I was floored. I had never considered it in that light.”
And Lerner goes on to explain why it’s been just as harmful for men.
“The effect on men has been very bad, too, of the omission of women’s history, because men have been given the impression that they’re much more important in the world than they actually are. And that’s not a good way to become a human being. It has fostered illusions of grandeur in every man that are unwarranted. If you can think, as a man, that everything great in the world and its civilization was created by men, then naturally you have to look down on women. And naturally, you have to have different aspirations for your sons and for your daughters.”
This does not mean we throw out all the history books and only teach women’s history, it means we rectify this imbalance not only in schools, but also in books, movies, plays and museums.
And it means we encourage the men in our lives to learn about them as well. (I know – much easier said than done.)
Because if we want our country to reach its fullest potential, it’s not just women who need to believe that they are smart, strong and can make a difference. Men need to believe it too.