Where are the Women: Promoting Inclusions in Survey History Courses

Allyson Schettino

Author’s note: I was slated to chair a roundtable discussion titled “Where are the Women: Promoting Inclusions in Survey History Courses” at the 2020 OAH Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The roundtable brought together colleagues from cultural institutions, universities, and the New York City Department of Education to talk about why women’s history was vital to survey history courses and to introduce attendees to Women & the American Story (wams.nyhistory.org), a new online women’s history curriculum from the New-York Historical Society. Although the roundtable discussion could not take place due to COVID-19, this article explores the state of the question for women’s inclusion in history classrooms and introduces readers to a variety of resources and topics covered in the Women & the American Story curriculum, which is particularly useful for crafting remote learning experiences.

In 2016 Dr. Kay A. Chick and Stacey Corle published the illuminating study “Confronting Gender Imbalance in High School History Textbooks Through the C3 Framework” in Social Studies Research and Practice.[1] They began by drawing attention to the fact that undergraduate students routinely struggle to name more than a few famous historical women and have almost no familiarity with the social history of “ordinary” women. To discover why, they conducted a thorough analysis of the four top-selling high school American history textbooks and discovered that women are significantly underrepresented, making up approximately 13% of named individuals. They also discovered that this exclusion was perfectly aligned with the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, which left the work of representing women as equal participants in American history up to individual educators, a choice that Dr. Kathryn E. Engebretson described as leaving “too much up to chance.”[2]

For the dedicated student of history, opportunities to learn women’s history improve greatly at the undergraduate level, where over half a century of research and study has led to the creation of dedicated courses that cover these vital topics and figures. But the vast majority of undergraduate students are, alas, not history majors. Their only exposure to undergraduate history is the general history surveys that may or may not be a requirement for graduation. In the spirit of imparting as much political and military history as is possible, many of these courses perpetuate the exclusion of all but the most extraordinary women, as well as women’s social history generally.

All this means that the vast majority of students in the American educational system graduate with almost no knowledge of the contributions of women to American history, despite the fact that women have nearly always represented about 50% of the population of the American colonies and the United States and have had a profound impact on the making of America in every chapter of our history. This lack of representation gives the false impression that women have been passive observers of American history and reinforces modern stereotypes that women have less to offer in public spheres. Is it such a leap to conclude that so many Americans cannot conceive of electing a woman to the office of president because they are unaware that women have been powerful, though unacknowledged, political actors for centuries?

If we want a world where women are treated as equal citizens, we need to give our students—and their teachers—the historical context to know that women have been equal partners in the American experiment. Chick and Corle demonstrated that this history is missing from the most popular textbooks and narratives, so it has become the responsibility of history educators to create the resources necessary to do this work. One such grassroots project, in its third year of development, is Women & the American Story (http://wams.nyhistory.org).

Women & the American Story (WAMS) is the flagship education initiative of the New-York Historical Society’s Center for Women’s History. This free curriculum website provides teachers and students, as well as curious individuals, with information about the myriad and often critical roles women played in shaping U.S. history. Through WAMS, we seek to make the history taught in our classrooms more representative, accurate, and engaging. When more students see themselves reflected in the social studies curriculum, they recognize their own agency. When students see a broader range of experiences represented in the narrative of the American past, they learn to value diversity and appreciate difference. Both strengthen our democracy.

Since its launch in 2018, WAMS has collected a number of academic and institutional partners from across the United States. The Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, Atlanta History Center, Missouri Historical Society, Huntington Library, Chicago History Museum, and the Oregon Historical Society all contribute materials to ensure the curriculum has a national scope. Many of the top women’s history scholars in the country have acted as advisors to ensure the history presented reflects the most up-to-date scholarship. To date, six of a planned ten units have been published to the website, and when the project is completed in 2022 it will cover the entire scope of U.S. history, from European contact to the twenty-first century.

Throughout my time as a curriculum writer for WAMS, I’ve come to discover that there are three fairly simple approaches to incorporating women’s history resources into existing lesson plans. After reviewing the examples given, we encourage you to visit the website and explore the many different eras and topics represented for your own lesson planning.

Plug and Play

There are several topics in the American history survey that simply cannot be ignored. With the right resources, women can be easily plugged into these lessons to improve inclusivity and broaden general understanding. As we wrote the early units of WAMS we came to describe these kinds of resources as “plug and play.” You simply remove a male figure or male perspective, plug in a female figure or perspective that makes the same, or similar, points, and voila! You’ve improved the diversity of your course without skipping major themes or events and without having to find additional instructional time.

For example, nearly every course on the American Revolution includes an analysis of Paul Revere’s “Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in Kings Street in Boston.”  This analysis could be substituted with excerpts from Mercy Otis Warren’s “The Adulateur.” Or better yet, invite students to analyze how these two political agitators approached the task of fostering sympathy for the patriot cause. In this example, there is no need to dig deeper into the question of Otis Warren’s gender and identity—it is enough to introduce students to the reality that women and men both created propaganda in the lead up to the American Revolution.

Of course, not all historical women were on the right side of history. America for Americans: Creed of Klanswoman lays out the platform of the Ku Klux Klan at the time of its resurgence in the 1920s. By featuring this document, educators can cover the ideology of the Klan while debunking the idea that white women have not been active and willing participants in promoting white supremacy.

But the most effective uses of the plug and play model come when the resources both fit in to the master narrative of history and introduce entirely new perspectives of that narrative. One particularly powerful example of this is when the history of slavery is examined through the experiences of Black women. As Jennifer Morgan demonstrated with her groundbreaking work Laboring Women, the full extent of the cruelties of chattel slavery cannot be fully understood until we examine how Black women’s bodies were exploited to perpetuate the system.[3] The Virginia Grand Assembly laws passed in 1642, 1662, and 1691 all demonstrate how enslaved women were at the heart of efforts to define racial difference, codify race-based slavery, and perpetuate an enslaved population. About 200 years later, enslaved women still understood that one of the most effective ways to protest their enslavement was to limit their reproductive capacity (resource available December 2020). These and the myriad other documents available reinforce the common narrative that slavery was a cruel and exploitive system, one that fundamentally shaped U.S. history for over 200 years, as well as expose students to new ways of conceiving the depth and breadth of that exploitation.

Women-Specific Topics

There are some topics that are not so easily plugged into the traditional march of the American history survey, but their inclusion can provide a new lens through which students can better understand the course of American history. Perhaps the most important of these women specific topics is the concept of coverture.

The first problem with including coverture in American history courses is that it’s an inherited ideology that is never strictly defined in U.S. legal documents. To get to the root of the idea you need to read the work of seventeenth-century English jurist Sir William Blackstone. Blackstone did not come up with these rules and norms, which developed over centuries, but he wrote them down and, in so doing, made them official. Blackstone’s codification that women were entirely covered by the legal and economic protection of their fathers and husbands was so intrinsic to colonial society that it did not warrant a mention in any of the country’s founding documents—it was simply taken for granted. But this principal has had profound implications for American women of all races, ethnicities, and social classes in every era of American history. Why did the Union government never establish a policy for Black women to achieve emancipation during the American Civil War? It was assumed that Black women would be covered by the legal status of their husbands and fathers (resource available December 2020). Why did states need to pass laws granting married women the right to control property they acquired and owned? Because the assumption of coverture meant that all women’s property fell under the control of their husbands as soon as they married. Why were so many men and women opposed to granting women the right to vote? The theory of coverture was supposed to guarantee that they were already politically represented by their husbands and fathers. Why were unmarried women hit so hard by the Great Depression? Employers laid off women first because they assumed those women had husbands and fathers to care for them. Why are women, especially minority women, still paid a percentage of what men receive for doing the same jobs? Could it be that there remains a cultural bias that men must earn more to provide for wives and families, while women workers are supplementing their husband’s income?

By layering women-specific lenses on our courses, we provide students with yet another framework through which to understand the historical events they are studying—and the world in which they live today. A simple outlay of effort at the beginning of a survey to set up these frameworks can reap benefits for the remainder of the course.

Phenomenal Women

As Chick and Corle make very clear at the outset of their article, undergraduate students have no problem rattling off a list of outstanding men in history, but they struggle to do the same for women.[4] So long as survey history courses continue to highlight the accomplishments of outstanding men, they must also introduce students to outstanding women who had equal accomplishments and impacts. If you are covering the Hernando Cortés conquest, introduce students to Malitzen (La Malinche), the indigenous interpreter who Cortés described as “second only to God” in ensuring the success of his mission. Teach students how Elizabeth Freeman used the rhetoric of slaveholding Patriot men to emancipate herself and set a legal precedent for abolition in the state of Massachusetts. When introducing the Latinx writers and cultural influencers of the turn of the twentieth-century, include publisher Jovita Idar Juaréz.

Each of these women, and so many more, had a profound impact on the course of American history, but their stories have been sidelined by generations of historians and writers who did not believe that women’s contributions were as worthy of attention as those of the male office holders and power wielders of American history. It is going to take a conscious effort towards inclusion to correct that shortcoming and reach a future where students are able to name important women from every era of American history.


Women are largely missing from nearly every American history survey, but a simple review of women’s history scholarship demonstrates that their impact has been profound. It must be taught if we want students to fully understand the nation they live in. In truth, the most challenging part of writing the WAMS curriculum in the last four years has been curating the selection of resources for each unit. So the project will never truly be done. We hope to be adding and expanding the curriculum for years to come.

To explore Women & the American Story, visit wams.nyhistory.org.

[1] Kay A. Chick and Stacey Corle, “Confronting Gender Imbalance in High School History Textbooks Through the C3 Framework,” Social Studies Research and Practice, 11 (Summer 2016), 1-16.

[2] Kathryn Engebretson, “Another missed opportunity: Gender in the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies,” Social Studies Research and Practice, 9 (Winter 2014), 21-34.

[3] Jennifer Morgan, Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery (2004).

[4] Chick and Corle, “Confronting Gender Imbalance in High School History Textbooks Through the C3 Framework.”