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Where are the women who inspire?

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The Texas Board of Education’s preliminary decision to remove Hillary Clinton and Helen Keller from state social studies standards deepens an educational tragedy that has plagued our country for far too long. It’s one that has a long-term impact on the way girls perceive themselves, and the way boys perceive them.

History textbooks today don’t tell the complete story of U.S. history. All history projects require choices. Because of a limited amount of teaching time, including one person excludes another — and women often don’t make the cut. In fact, a 2016 study found that women make up only about 14 percent of figures in U.S. history textbooks, including illustrations and sidebars. While the number of women increases from elementary to high school texts, women as a proportion of historical figures decreases. The number of named men increases at the high school level faster than the number of women.

{mosads}The National Women’s History Museum’s Report on the Status of Women in the United States Social Studies Standards examines every state’s social studies standards. We found a total of 178 women are named in all the state standards, and 98 of those women appear only one time. There are only 15 women who are named in more than 10 standards.

The most frequent way (53 percent of mentions) standards describe women’s history is in reference to their domestic and family roles. Women impact the nation’s cultural, political and economic life, but social studies students most often study women’s roles within families and most often at the elementary school level.

In the Texas standards, women are mentioned by name 55 times. Some women are mentioned more than once. Currently, Alabama, Montana, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming include Helen Keller in their standards and Texas, Tennessee and Kansas include Hillary Clinton. Although removing Clinton and Keller does not change the number of women mentioned in classrooms nationwide, it means that students will learn about Clinton in only two states and Keller in four.

What students learn in school has a genuine impact on society as a whole. Research finds that women rely on and benefit from same-gender role models. A 2017 study showed that children as young as age 6 — boys and girls — already believe men are smarter than women. Six-year-old girls don’t believe that women are “really, really smart.” Sadly, these girls avoid activities for “really, really smart” children, affecting their interests and ultimately their academic and career choices.

Only nine of the 100 statues in the U.S. Capitol’s statuary hall are women. Only three of the 152 monuments the National Park Service oversees are of women, and none of the 30 national memorials specifically honors women.

We see the effect in boardrooms, too. Only 24 Fortune 500 chiefs are women, and when PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi stepped down this year, PG&E’s Geisha Williams became the only woman of color who is a CEO.

The halls of government aren’t much better. In Congress, women make up 20 percent of the 535 members of Congress. There are only six women governors, and women make up 25.5 percent of state legislatures. While 14 women have run for president and five women have been candidates for vice president, only two women have been nominated by a major party to run for vice president. Only one woman has been nominated by a major party to run for president: Clinton.

Because we don’t learn about women in school, we don’t miss them in our national parks, boardrooms, the halls of Congress or the White House.

This must change. The National Women’s History Museum works with and employs master educators, scholars and public history experts to create a wealth of materials that meet state standards to support teachers and students. Through our current “museum without walls,” we provide materials that incorporate women and their experiences into classroom discussion and from a women’s history perspective. Examining the historical context leads to more in-depth understanding and appreciation of the full arc of American history. If we can’t get women into the textbooks, we can bring them into the classroom.

But that’s not enough. We have worked for more than two decades to build a women’s history museum on the National Mall to show the full scope of women’s contributions to our national narrative. We are at a critical pivot point in our nation’s history. Women are finding their voices and it’s time to listen to and tell those stories past and present — not erase them from history.

Susan D. Whiting is board chair for the National Women’s History Museum, a trustee for the Chicago Academy of Sciences’ Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, The Trust for Public Land, and Denison University. She is the former vice chair of Nielsen and a board director for Alliant Energy, Kemper Insurance, and Hyde Park Angels. A cousin of Susan B. Anthony, she is passionate about education and history.

Tags Gender studies Hillary Clinton Women's History Museum

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