April 25, 2019 | 56° F

COUTO: Schools should teach more women’s history

Opinions Column: Through the Looking Glass

Women’s history is often sidelined to showcase the achievements of men, and this is never more true than in our nation’s schools. As a third culture kid, I attended a total of six schools in my life — some public, some private — and am saddened to admit that I can count the amount of lessons I received that were exclusively devoted to women’s history on one hand. 

During my United States history class in high school, women’s suffrage was glossed over in a single paragraph of our textbooks, swimming in a conglomeration of chapters upon chapters containing intricate details of male accomplishment. March is Women’s History Month — it’s not only important to highlight women’s contributions to humankind, but also to criticize how women are often denied the same opportunity as men to acquire knowledge of their gender’s historical feats. This negligence to teach our children about half the population’s role in the chronicle of time is at the very core of girls’ and women's never-ending struggle to obtain confidence and high self-esteem. An article was published in The New York Times this past January in which two college professors — Andrei Cimpian and Sarah-Jane Leslie — conducted extensive research on how gender conventions affect the way American children perceive “cultural stereotypes about brilliance.” In their article, “Why Young Girls Don’t Think They Are Smart Enough,” Cimpian and Leslie ultimately come to the conclusion that “our cultural stereotypes promote the idea that being intellectually gifted is a male quality,” and even more disheartening, “By the age of 6, young girls are less likely than boys to view their own gender as brilliant.” Coincidentally yet unsurprisingly, one of the reasons girls feel this way is because they are not exposed to “successful role models” that can raise “their motivation.” In other words, if school-aged children had better access to information about the historical importance of women at the same level they do of men’s, then perhaps young girls would have more reason to believe their worth is on par with those of their male counterparts. The need to increase awareness of women’s history has been a current topic in recent months, partially due to the Oscar-nominated film, Hidden Figures, which tells the previously undistinguished story of three black women mathematicians and engineers who played pivotal roles in NASA's competitive space missions against Russia during the Cold War. Ask anyone what exactly encompassed their history curriculum regarding the Space Race, and I highly doubt many people were taught the names of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson — key players in establishing the United States as an astronautical superpower. I’m thankful to be living in a time when I can have access to information that proves just how crucial women are to society for something other than raising the future generation of workers. But how many women did not have that same opportunity? How many women have died not knowing about the incredible accomplishments of the women that came before them? Given the outcome of the 2016 presidential election and President Donald J. Trump’s backwards stance on women’s rights, it is essential now more than ever to highlight how women in history have gone on to achieve great things, and to eradicate this old-fashioned practice of awarding credit solely to men in situations that women were equal contributors. Moreover, not only is it necessary to teach our youth a complete account of women’s history, but it is also necessary to stress the importance of intersectionality — “a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions (racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, xenophobia, classism, etc.) are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another” according to the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (SCCADVASA). For instance, while Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan are widely known as leaders in the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s, certain women who fought alongside them — but were simultaneously integrated in other minority groups — and are often not mentioned in classrooms that review second wave feminism. Some names that come to mind are Linda Burnham — co-founder of the Women of Color Resource Center (WCRC) and activist for issues facing women of color since the early 1970s, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and Rita Mae Brown — a New York Times bestselling author and “Emmy-nominated screenwriter who was a prominent advocate for both the feminist movement and gay rights," according to her website. If it wasn’t for the courage and intelligence of women, men like Neil Armstrong may have never walked on the moon. As the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman, but it’s about time we bring those women into the spotlight and show little girls just how capable and “brilliant’” they truly are. 

Ana Couto is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year majoring in English and journalism and media studies. Her column, "Through the Looking Glass," runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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Ana Couto

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