Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Are There So Few Statues of Women?

The Washington Post's Cari Shane notes this week that there are very few statues in America that commemorate women's contributions to American history. Indeed, less than 8% of statues in the nation are of specific women (as opposed to anonymous ideals like Liberty, which may be represented by a female-bodied statue, but aren't about the history-making of actual women).

Shane and the people she interviews make several good points about why this might be and why this is a problem: men are the only people historically considered to be contributors to history in any meaningful way; most statues are political or military, fields that are only open to women relatively recently; that "hero" has a masculine ring to it; that women might be doing things other than working to see themselves in statuary. They also note that if girls can't see women memorialized, they might not be able to see themselves as history-makers.

This idea that men are the only ones who have done anything is not an accident. We already know that there are strong cultural forces pulling people towards hetero-patriarchy. Check out the religious right sometime - they're not huge in number, but they sure do have a lot of influence. If men are the people most likely to have official power in the government, if they are the ones who are seen as world-changers, we only continue this narrative that downplays the accomplishments of women.

It is true that women were excluded from the public sphere for much of history, and many people will point to that as a reason for this imbalance: if women haven't been out there in public, how are we supposed to memorialize them publicly? But in fact, many women were not waiting around for permission to act. Jane Addams, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ella Flagg Young, Sojourner Truth, Ida Tarbell, Harriet Tubman, Lucille Ball, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Betty Friedan, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald - I could go on listing people all day. So could you. The point isn't just to show that there are women who have done stuff, because if you're reading this blog you already know that.

One of the biggest problems here, I think, is that we have "history" and then we have "women's history" (the same can be said of black history or Chicana history or almost anything that isn't white-male centric). So we don't need to build lots of statues to women, because that isn't really important, it's not on the FCAT. And goodness knows, we wouldn't want to build statues that only women care about, right? We can all relate to Abraham Lincoln, but men don't care about Betty Friedan, or so the story goes. It's the same justification used for making children's movies, most of which have boys as the main character. Girls will go see movies with boys in them, but boys won't go see movies about girls. But the thing is, boys could stand to see that they're not the center of the movie industry, or our cultural experience, or our history. And girls need to see this, too.


  1. I have lots of thoughts to share on this, but I've got to get some copies made for classes, alas, so they will have to wait. I would just point out that women's history is not on the FCAT because, well, there is NO history or social studies on the FCAT. We aren't tested. We aren't important.
    Just saying is all. I will have less petty and selfish thoughts later. :)

  2. I look forward to your comments later! I'm sure there's a lot more to say about this, but this kid has to get her grading done. I see this as a "throwing it out there and seeing what other people have to say" kind of post, rather than a "this is fucked up and I am going to tell you exactly why" sort of thing. :)

  3. This.

    California recently passed a law mandating that LGBT history be included in schools. Of course, there's much hand-wringing over the Gay Agenda and how this will water down the curriculum which already has to include Black history and women's history. It's infuriating, because, as you say, it treats White male history as the norm and everything else is optional or caving to special interests. It's so insulting to all the non-White men in history and their descendants (literal or figurative) who see themselves erased from schools and public consciousness. One can't and shouldn't talk about California history without talking about Native Americans, Spanish colonists, struggles for independence against various nations, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Dolores Huerta, Richard Aoki, Fred Korematsu, Donaldina Cameron and so many more. These people were hugely influential on the history of California and often the US in general.

    To pretend that anyone other than a White male was a footnote or a sidebar in history is insulting to those who made history, alienating to those who count those history-makers as forebearers, and harmful to all who learn such a myopic and distorted view of history and cannot gain from the complexity and variance of the path that led to today.

    What a change it would make if history were taught using Said's counterpuntual analysis of power and its tensions with those reacting to power.

  4. Well, there are some issues with history and socials studies instruction that come into play here. One of the most significant ones involves the scope and sequence of the curriculum. We simply do not have the ability or time to give proper attention to everything. In world history, for example, the standards in Florida begin in about 4 million BC and go to the present day. And I have one year to teach it. In American history, the problem is the same. Who must be sacrificed from the curriculum in order to give attention to others? And what exactly do we teach about them? Can we discuss the slave trade without showing the complicity of the African and Arab slave traders? Can we talk about MLK without discussing his philandering and purported plagiarism? Can we discuss Jefferson without mention of the ongoing relationship with his enslaved sister in law? Can we discuss the positives and greatness of America without addressing the obstacles to that greatness that we have historically ignored? These are all questions that have been ongoing in the debate over history. And honestly, there is simply no possible way that the desires, however legitimate and justified, of every historically marginalized group for attention can ever be met with the justice that is deserved. The yellow box will always exist, and it will always exist because we cannot, as a nation, agree on what is relevant history. Jonathan Zimmermana, in 'Whose America: Culture Wars in The Public Schools' addressed these very issues in far better detail than I could. And the standards are an ongoing problem. Gary Nash wrote about his experiences trying to develop National History Standards in the 1990's (under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Humanities, led by Liz Cheney), and how that devolved into a pissing match between left and right. We still lack those national standards.
    And this fight is seen in all of its glory in Texas, where the new social studies standards have done such things as eliminated any discussion of sexuality and gender from sociology, Jefferson and the Enlightenment from World History, US imperialism from American history, the very word capitalism (nowhere to be found in the standards; leftists made it a bad word), and hip hop as a musical genre. These are the ones just off the top of my head.

    We also need to remember that 'white' and 'white history' is subjective and evolving. Those who are 'white' today (Irish, Polish, Russian, Jews, Catholics) were NOT necessarily 'white' at the turn of the LAST century, and those who are 'not white' today, such as Chicanos and Asians, may be absorbed into the definition tomorrow, something that Zimmerman touches on briefly. Anecdotally, my uncle, full blooded Portuguese in Massachusetts, gets very angry when someone asks him if he is Brazilian (a growing population in Cambridge); it brings up that idea of 'who is white'.

    At the same time, I suggest that many, though not a majority, of social studies and history teachers, especially at the secondary/high school level, identify as conservative. I taught a number of them, and have worked with many. I know one history teacher in my county, for example, who just finished with his PhD from UF in, I believe, social foundations of education, and makes the Tea Party look like pinko liberals. Two of the public school history teacher folks in my dissertation, of the three I looked at, also identify as either Tea Party or Christian Fundamentalist. You will never get them to agree that Said's particular approach is acceptable; they have a hard enough time with James Loewen.

    I know this is contradictory, but it's coming from my own lived experience. Thanks. I enjoy these posts!


  5. Steve, I have to say, I'm not really buying it.

    Women are 50-ish percent of the population. They need a place in the curriculum. 50-ish percent of the curriculum, I'd say. And while I am all for a shifting landscape of gender identity the same way there has been a shifting landscape of race, if that can all work in an anti-oppressive direction, the facts on the ground are these: women are horribly underrepresented in historical study.

    That isn't even approaching the other people left out - some of whom are women!: LGBTQs, racial/language minorities, Native Americans, etc. I mean seriously. The "we don't have time for that" attitude about recentering the curriculum to include these people is indicative of the larger attitude about who we, as a society, have time for. Straight white guys still seem to take priority, if you look at, say, the federal budget.

    And I don't, honestly, give a fuck that most history/social studies teachers are conservative. We're here, we're queer, get used to it, damn.

  6. With all due respect, you can not give a fuck, but it matters that these teachers are conservative, because if you do not have buy in from the teachers, then whatever you do ultimately will not matter. Are we going to have a litmus test for teachers? How you approach the revision of the curriculum is just as important as what is included, and if these teachers reject changes to the curriculum, or approach the curriculum reluctantly, it matters. It also is influenced by the communities they teach in; shoot, a plurality of my own high school students are still complaining that there is no school prayer, based on discussions I had with them today. This is one reason the history standards collapsed in the 1990's.

    I know that we will never agree on this, however, as we have had this argument about the role of teachers before.

    I do not understand how you expect this 'recentering' to happen. You act as if time is NOT a problem. It is. It is a huge problem, if you wish to do justice to history instruction. We can barely address the minimum now, and shallow coverage is just as bad as no coverage. Of course these groups and these individuals should be infused in the curriculum, but the question is how, and what is appropriate, and how much attention should they get? And, again, what is going to be left out so that these groups and individuals can be incorporated? What choices will we make? How do we justify these changes in a manner which will not end in disaster as it did 20 years ago? And we do currently give attention to a much wider variety of groups and figures in history than we did even those 20 years ago. Most of the events, ideas, and figures mentioned by Andrew are already in the standards, and supposed to be taught. Again, though, coverage is shallow because you simply cannot cover it all. And this applies for history across the board, including those dead white guys.

    When I was at the meeting a few years ago to write the new standards for Social Studies in Florida, representatives from African-American, Native American, Jewish, and Hispanic advocacy groups (among others) were there looking over our shoulders to make sure we were ensuring diversity in the standards. So the process is ongoing. It cannot change overnight, and we cannot demand that the teaching of history change overnight. Have you read Zimmerman at all? I recommend his work on the nature of history standards and the efforts by minority groups for inclusion.

    I know, again, we will never agree on this, but thanks for making me think about it!

  7. @Steve

    You touch on a lot of points.

    The problems you raise:

    1) Scope. There's a lot of history from 4 million years ago to present, so it's hard to cram more requirements into the curriculum.

    2) Complexity. How complex should the narratives presented be? Adding more details adds realism and context, but it requires more time in an already packed curriculum.

    In a perfect world, my solution would be to revamp the entire history curriculum at all levels.

    1) Remove non-human history (there were no humans four million years ago, so 98% of the time line can be moved to biology/earth science).

    2) Start history in first grade with broad strokes.

    3) Layer on details and complexity in subsequent years. By grade 12, a pretty complex picture can emerge.

    4) Integrate "world" and "US" history. The world has never been a vacuum, and globalization is not new. Trade, wars, exploration, colonization, and empires have impact across the world and across history.

    5) History is the lived of experience of the people at that time. Starting off early, get students involved by helping them connect with what it was like for people their age in a given time. What happens on a day-to-day level is important. This also makes it easy to include a broad spectrum of human experience, as it avoids just talking about kings, generals, and popes who tend to represent a very small spectrum of experience.

    Of course, the world is not ideal, so revamping curricula will not be easy. So here's my more realistic approach:

    Use the standard curriculum to expose students to a broad experience. Standard history classes (at least the ones I took) tend to be about power, specifically those who have power. It's not to hard to flip that around and ask students to look at who is underneath that power. One doesn't need to mention Said to look at the counterpoint. Talk about whose narratives gain prominence, expose writings from more powerless groups (there are so many letters, novels, oral histories and more from Native Americans, slaves, free Blacks, women, immigrants, etc.) to create juxtapositions.

    If Jackson is on the curriculum, assign readings on his campaigns against the Seminoles; contrast the expansion of suffrage among White men with the restriction of rights for non-Whites and women; discuss how evolving gender norms played a role in how Jackson's wife was viewed in Washington; discuss the role of folk history surrounding the Battle of New Orleans and its mythology versus reality; discuss how Jackson's views on banking, class, and economics impact modern schemas. Non-White, non-male, non-straight, etc. history can be woven into every facet of history. Intersectionality exists at all points in history for every event.

    In later years, add complexity. Talk about the evolution of Whiteness from early Virginia rebellions through 19th century immigration through 20th century exclusion acts. Similarly talk about the evolution of gender and sexuality.

    Even if these aren't standardized in the curriculum, subversive teachers can and should inject inclusive history into the curriculum.

  8. Steve, sorry, your comment got flagged as spam for some reason, and so I just saw it. Anyway, you know that I think we need to stop caving to conservatism all the time. The way history is taught now is lying to kids, and I'm over it.

    Anyway, I'm off to derby practice and might be able to think more coherently after I've skated off some shit. :)

    I have indeed read Zimmerman.

  9. Okay, not more lucid, but two thoughts:

    1. Why are we churning out so many homophobic, sexist, racist history teachers? What is going on?

    2. Do you think you might feel differently about this if you were a member of a marginalized community? That's an honest question.

    Also, Andrew, I think your insights and ideas are really interesting, thanks to both of you for engaging in this conversation!

  10. Jess, A couple of thoughts in response before bed:

    1. I am not sure where you get this from. Conservative or conservative leaning is NOT the same as homophobic, sexist, and racist. And we, I believe, will run into dangerous waters if we demand an ideological litmus test for history teachers. This is my opinion, of course, and I know others of our friends might disagree.

    2. No, I don't. I have been in the classroom for 9 years, I have been examining history instruction for almost that long. I have been involved in the writing of standards; I know the in depth process as well as the variety of voices that go into writing them. I have reviewed dozens of textbooks, and I have worked with that many other history and social studies teachers from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences, and taught dozens of preservice educators as well. I do not believe that my perspective would be different. But then, that is my bias.

    Andrew, I tried responding earlier, but blogger ate my lovely developed thoughts. So I will try again.
    I really do like your ideas concerning social studies and history education in the abstract, but it would require significant changes in how we view what students are ready for and the scope and sequence of the curriculum. Merging world and american history is certainly feasible, but raises two issues: shallow coverage and political difficulty. Understanding this however, how would you revise the scope and sequence as it currently is?

    1. At the elementary level, most students, at least in Florida, get no real instruction in history in and of itself. Instead, the expanding horizons curriculum is the main focus until about the 3rd grade, and as students transition into 4th and 5th, they then get exposed to American history and Florida history. At the same time, more and more elementary schools abandon social studies and history instruction completely because it is not tested at this time. I had a student who came to me complaining that her principal did not allow social studies in the school, so she couldnt teach her lesson. So frustrating.
    2. In middle school, they get world cultures in 6th grade, civics in 7th, and american history to 1865 in 8th.
    3. In many Florida schools, ninth grade has no history or social studies instruction, with world history in 10th, american history from 1865 in 11th (3 years after their last exposure), and economics and government in 12th. We only require 3 credits in social studies to graduate.

    I also disagree with your desire to ignore early man. Many schools simply do NOT teach it in science (such as mine) because of religious objections in the community. In my experience, not unique, history is often the only exposure many kids get to this topic, and I also believe that you simply cannot understand the early culture of man without knowing where he came from. You HAVE to talk about Australopithecus to get to Homo Sapiens!


  11. (Continued: I talk a lot):

    Much of what you propose is in fact already being done in the social studies and history classroom. History is no longer, and has not been for quite a while, simply about the elites and their roles. Instead, primary sources have provided a further consideration of the impact and role of the marginalized and the commoner. The examples you give concerning content are already done. You cannot address history, in fact, without addressing those elements, whether we are talking Andrew Jackson's villianization of the banks or Alexander the Great's bisexuality.
    Ultimately, any content that a teacher chooses to teach must meet the demands of parents, and it is important, if a teacher wishes to be admirably subversive, that they actually consider what sorts of topics in history and social studies can be controversial and make sure parents are informed in advance so that if necessary, their child can be given alternate material. For example, I have to inform parents when I begin to discuss religion in world history, and I usually have 2 to 3 kids every year pulled out when I discuss non Christian faiths, or even freaking Catholic Christianity. And with it now being so easy to 'fire' teachers, we MUST be careful, no matter how idealistic we are (in my opinion). I have a colleague, fantastic teacher, best English teacher in the school (according to the state, students, and other teachers), who was non renewed after her second year because of her tendency to dress Goth (well, 'professional style Goth'), display the tattoos on her arms, and her outspoken liberal nature. They never gave her a reason for non renewing, but then, they do not have to.

    In my opinion, current History instruction is not the nightmare web of lies that the original post and the comments so far suggest. Except in Texas. But everything is worse in Texas. (and I am not kidding here; the standards there

    Thanks for a good discussion. I know we will not see eye to eye on this, but it is a pleasure to discuss.

  12. I'm not suggesting we need an ideological litmus test. And I know that not all conservatives are racist/sexist/homophobic. But you're saying that plenty of these people are so super-conservative that they can't handle diversifying the curriculum. That's what I was reacting to. Why are there so many people teaching history who can't even handle Loewen?