Growing up, I spent hours and hours reading. During any given week, I would read three or four different books. Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, and Laura Ingalls were my literary companions. I inhaled books, I was the one who read under the covers by flashlight, long after my bedtime.
To say reading was my hobby was an understatement: It was my life. My community was small. I went to school from 1st to 6th grade with the exact same people, not just in my grade, but in my classroom. Books were a place to experience something different, something unusual, something great. I couldn’t get enough.
Our elementary school library was small—a trailer really—but within its walls were books that inspired my love of history and provided hours of reading about how women shaped the history of America.
One entire shelf, floor to ceiling, housed a collection of biographies. These books were covered in dirty rust-orange fabric, smelled just a bit stale, and they were full of vivid stories about American history. They were around 200-250 pages, each page weaving a tale of the lives of many important historical figures. I think I read each and every one of them, some more than once. Opening these books allowed me to look into the lives of people who were from far off places, lived in a different time and had experienced so much more than I felt I ever would.
It was in this little library at Garner Elementary School in Boyd County, Kentucky, that I learned about Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, Abigail Adams, Betsy Ross, Jane Addams, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Louisa May Alcott and so many other women who made a difference in the history of America.
From reading about Louisa May Alcott, I discovered Little Women and the struggles of the homefront during the Civil War. For the first time, I empathized with those left behind.
From reading about Eleanor Roosevelt, I discovered Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Manhattan Project. I then learned my own grandmother had grown up in the shadow of Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
In reading about Jane Addams, I discovered settlement houses, immigration issues, and social reform in America. I learned the importance of selflessness, of speaking for those who did not have a voice.
From reading about Susan B. Anthony, I learned how hard women fought to gain the right to vote. This story made such an impression, that when I registered to vote, I almost thanked Susan B. Anthony—out loud.
I learned about history first from the women who experienced it and influenced its change and outcome. I believe this gave me a unique perspective on American history, because I first viewed historical events through the eyes of women, not men. I didn’t stop with those dirty orange-covered books, I continually sought out books about women in history, shaping my view of history in a way that at the time, I didn’t know was unique.
In junior high, we talked about Women’s History Month and how important it was to include women in our discussion of historical events. I was perplexed—women make up a great deal of what is best about America. I didn’t realize women were virtually non-existent in American History classes. In my high school US History class, I truly realized something was missing—women. Where were the vibrant stories of Clara Barton’s determination? Why didn’t we talk about how Dolley Madison saved the White House? How could we talk about WW I battlefield medicine without even mentioning Marie Curie?
As I entered the University of Kentucky as a history major, I was still looking for all those women I’d read about in elementary school. Guess what—they were missing from my History of the American Revolution class. They were missing from the History of the New South. They were mostly absent from all my university history courses.
I decided to do my small part to write them back in. My junior thesis was on Women’s Roles in the Civil War. I researched and read countless Civil War-era diaries written by women in both the North and the South. If you want to know what life was really like during a specific time period, read a woman’s diary. This was fascinating stuff. My thesis topic was met with less-than-lukewarm enthusiasm by my professor. However, I persevered and delivered a paper and presentation that had him asking even more questions about the varied roles women played in our Civil War history. One very small victory for women!
As an educator, I strive to give women in history a place in my classroom, but even more than that, I strive to give the young women in my class a voice. I use examples of historically strong, determined women to expose them to precedents of women making a difference, women taking a stand and women doing things that impact our history. Studying the Equal Rights Amendment and Feminism in the 1970s hooks the girls in my class, when they realized that many women were denied the same educational opportunities as men until the passage of Title IX in 1972.
In my geography classes, we talk about Jane Goodall when discussing conservation efforts and about Ester Boserup when discussing possibilism. To illustrate the importance one voice can make, we read and talk about Malala Youssfzai.
Whether you teach American or World History, Geography or Economics, Language Arts or a foreign language, make time to seek out women to include in your curriculum, introduce women’s roles in history to those who did not have the opportunity to read book after book covered in dirty orange fabric in a tiny elementary school library.
Jennifer is one of our #worldgeochat bloggers. #worldgeochat is a professional learning network at its finest—a community of learners who work with each other and for each other. Join us each Tuesday night at 9 Eastern/8 Central—click here for a list of upcoming topics!