American HerStory A PopEd Lesson for Women’s History Month

National Anti-Suffrage Association, 1911 © Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress

Reproductive choices hinge on women’s status in society. That’s why PopEd devotes sections of our middle and high school curricula to understanding the inequities that exist for girls and women around the world, mostly in less developed countries — places where few opportunities exist for girls outside of marriage and motherhood; where many girls are considered a burden to their parents, are married off as teens, receive inadequate healthcare, and are tasked with the lion’s share of domestic work; and where women have few opportunities to own property or be financially independent.

This might seem very far removed from the realities of teens in the United States, where girls are told they can be anything they want and have equal opportunities to their male counterparts. And, indeed, there has never been a better time for women in American history than the present moment. Yet, if the news of recent months is any gauge, we still have a long way to go. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements shined lights on sexual discrimination and harassment in movie studios, newsrooms, and halls of Congress — probably just a tiny fraction of what goes on in workplaces large and small.

In terms of numbers, the share of women in leadership roles — corporate CEOs and legislative representatives — is still embarrassingly low for a country that prides itself on equal opportunities. Personal freedoms for women, including reproductive health choices, still aren’t settled matters in the U.S. It’s fair game to ask high school students this: “If men were the ones who got pregnant, would there be any controversy surrounding reproductive choices?”

March is Women’s History Month, a time when schools explore the contributions of women since America’s founding. Yet, women’s history isn’t just about notable women who fought for suffrage, flew airplanes, and made medical discoveries; it’s also about the history of women’s role in society and the uncomfortable truths of sexism and gender discrimination yesterday and today.

In the soon-to-be-released fifth edition of our high school curriculum, Earth Matters: Studies for Our Global Future, we’ve included a new activity, “American HerStory,” to facilitate students’ exploration of women’s role in American society since 1900. Students participate in two short exercises about their own perception of gender roles, and then examine primary source materials that illustrate society’s views on women throughout six periods in American history. Here’s a condensed version of the activity.

Part 1: Gender Stereotypes

  1. Have students fold a blank sheet of paper into six sections. Provide them with a list of six professions (e.g. doctor, firefighter, nurse, elementary teacher, engineer, scientist, police officer, fighter pilot) and ask them to quickly draw what they picture when they think of people who work in these professions. Through a show of hands, tally the number of men vs. women represented for each of the professions. As a class, discuss why these professions might be seen as more “male” or “female.” Does this say anything about our larger society? If so, what?
  2. Have students complete one of the following statements on a sticky note based on their gender identity. These should be anonymous.

(a) Because I am a woman, I must        . If I were a man, I could        .

(b) Because I am a man, I must        . If I were a woman, I could        .

  1. Ask students to stick the notes up on a wall in the classroom. Allow them a few minutes to walk around and read their classmates’ answers. Lead a discussion, asking if they agree with all of the statements posted (why or why not?). Did they have any trouble deciding what to write? Would their parents or grandparents at their age have filled out the statements differently? Would they have filled out the statements differently if they lived in another place in the world?

Woman working on a “Vengeance” dive bomber, 1943 © Library of Congress

Part 2: The Past Informs the Present

  1. Ask students where our perceptions of men and women come from. (Observing others, our family members, multimedia, etc.)
  2. Divide students into six groups and assign each group a time period (1900–1919, 1920–1939, 1940–1959, 1960–1979, 1980–1999, 2000–present). Using a variety of materials (historical records, song lyrics, print ads, TV ads, video clips, etc.), students will research the role of women in the home and workplace during that time period. Have each group prepare a presentation summarizing their findings. Allow two class periods for the research and presentations. The following questions should guide their research:
  • Were women employed outside the home during this time period? If so, what were the most common professions for them at that time?
  • What was the average number of children women had during the time period? How do you think this impacted women’s lives?
  • How did the role of women change over the 20-year span? What improved for women? What stayed the same or got worse?
  • What, if any, differences did you find in women’s role in the home and workplace based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status?
  • What similarities do you see between this era and today?

The full activity includes links to over a dozen reference sites for finding materials for students’ research, including the U.S. Library of Congress, the National World War II Museum, the National Women’s History Museum, PBS, and several university collections.

  1. Follow up with a short essay assignment: How do you think the role of women in the United States might change in the next 20 years? (Include evidence you see in the home, workplace, politics, media, and entertainment.)

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