March highlights women, and there is no better time to set aside time to talk about gender equity, women’s rights, and Civil Rights than this month. Moving seamlessly from February’s Black History Month, we can continue conversations that feature rights, privileges, history, and connections to the present.
There is just so much going on in our lives today – politically and culturally. As school librarians we can help our faculty and students navigate the great arc of historical discourse on all kinds of topics. Those relating to women encompass just about everything – and looking at history with a women’s lens can tweak some of the traditional views of history. This is an excellent time to talk about perspective. The Circle of Viewpoints allows us to help students talk about events from different perspectives. There are many events and ideas that can be viewed differently depending on one’s viewpoint. Let’s look at a few:
Transportation is generally thought of in masculine terms: building trains, boats, automobiles, and then driving them has been seen as men’s realm. But women have participated in every adventure that men have, and looking at these events from a different perspective is an excellent addition to any social studies class.
Moving west has long been a part of our national discussion – cowboys, wagon trains, and mountain men captivate our collective imagination. Women’s diaries give a somewhat different – and equally captivating – perspective of the movement. Check out these diaries and spend some time with these women. Using a map, have students follow the trails that these women and their families took. I am reminded of a family story of how my grandmother brought a 2-month old baby and a 3-year-old toddler by train with all her worldly goods from Kansas to California by herself in order to meet up with her husband who had gone ahead to purchase land. Hardly the wagon train adventure, but nonetheless train travel in 1919 was not the same as today, and a single women navigating that terrain had to be able to navigate the many pitfalls of such travel…and with two babies in tow! Check out the history of rail service and let student imaginations fly. What would it have been like to have traveled by train in the early 1900s? What would the difference have been based on perspective: a women with children, a young man headed to the gold fields, a single woman, a family?
Ask students to write down the practical aspects of such travel, and compare it with what is needed today.
And driving? Are there gender differences in attitudes towards, and in use of, the automobile?
Eyewitness to History investigates the many views of the automobile and how it entered our lives so fully. The U.S. Dept of Transportation covers the many ways that women approach transportation in their overview of history.
As we help set up students for investigations, we can turn towards compilations of information.
The Changing Lives of Women. Talk about a gold mine for questioning! If your students are studying gender equity, history, fashion, culture, or just about anything, women are involved. In 2013 NPR launched a special series on “the changing lives of women.” With the most recent posts entered in 2015, this series covers a wide variety of topics including beauty, fashion, money, and power. It provides incredible biographies of interesting, successful, and powerful women, and with each topic, a question is posited: What has “dressing for power” meant through time? Why does appearance matter? Why can men obsess about sports and still be taken seriously, but if a woman is interested in fashion, makeup, or appearance, she is not capable of writing policy or history or science? Using the stories from this archive, students can delve into one aspect of gender to understand the changing perspectives on gender and equity.
1950 Housewives. A look at the past gives us an opportunity to see where the present may have started. Use this jewel of a video to show what life was like for women in the 1950s. Iconic scenes from the 1950s bring history alive to students, and the interviews with interesting and successful women highlight the movement that was beginning to take hold in the early 1960s.
This image below is perfect to use as a primary source lesson. I especially like using this because from the bottom of the ladder, the top seems so far away. Ask students where on this ladder are we today. What are desirable jobs today? Which are filled more by women? Which by men? When you look at this image full size, you can see that the top rung is “president.” We are oh so close; and now is an excellent time to look at each of the occupations on those rungs and discuss them from many different perspectives: culturally, socially, politically, economically. Use the Library of Congress’s Teaching with Primary Sources Analysis Tool to guide student discussions and critical observations.
Biographies tell the stories of people’s lives; let some videos do the talking! PBS Video created a large cache of interviews called The Makers. This series of videos on women houses an amazing array of women’s stories, including interviews with movers and shakers and ordinary folks past and present. These stories make for exciting lesson possibilities. Talk about the second wave of activism for rights – how did this fight for rights coincide with other Civil Rights movements?
- Picked a topic (career, reproductive rights, etc.) and argued from each different perspective.
- Created a Venn diagram – where (if ever) do their perspectives align – and what has changed since the 1970s for women? Where would the conversation today start? How would a Phyllis Schlafly discuss the issues today? How would Marlo Thomas or Betty Freidan?
- Listen to historical conversations alongside contemporary ones – where do they meet? What issues are the same?
The steps taken by legislators today directly impact women’s lives – how can we help our students to understand how we got to today? By listening to the stories of the past, reading about the histories of our current institutions, and engaging in open conversation. When most students think about the Women’s Movement, they tend to think about the “first wave” – those women who sought the right to vote. But the “second wave” grew out of the frustration of women who had worked during the war, or were college educated, or were single mothers needing to work but unable to find a job. These women of the 1960s and 1970s began work towards gender equity that we are grappling with today. Gender issues are at the forefront: reproductive rights, voting rights, health care, child care, and many other important issues are hovering between conversations in Congress and the states. It’s time to make sure that our students know the history of gender and how these issues affect them right now.
Here are some other links to consider:
And of course I’m going to send you to the Right Question Institute to learn more about how to create a questioning environment – get your students asking lots of questions… and then YOU can show them how to find the answers!
Happy March to all!
Author: Connie Williams
NBCTeacher Librarian and author of “Understanding Government Information: a Teaching Strategy Toolkit for grades 7-12”. Member of the CA State Library Services Board, and History Room Librarian at the Petaluma Regional Library [Sonoma County Library]. She welcomes all conversation.. give a holler!