Bring Back our Girls: Women and Girls in English and History Curriculums

By Tyler Bowders- Looking at Us Guest Blogger 

            In high school I stumbled upon, who I thought to be, an obscure British author of modernist literature. Her name: Virginia Woolf. The book: Mrs. Dalloway. It must be stated clearly and upfront that I only encountered this book through a fascination with Meryl Streep and her work in The Hours. Neither in high school, nor college, was I assigned as much as a quote of Virginia Woolf’s work. The fact that Virginia Woolf has been left to fade into the background of dusty, aging, history textbooks and reading anthologies should cause us all to take pause. Woolf is one example of the profound contributions that women and girls have made to literature and history, only to gradually drift to the background. Very recently, it was brought to my attention through a friend’s anecdote that The Diary of Anne Frank was offered to her only once during her educational career via a listing under “suggested readings.” By contrast, she read Elie Weisel’s Night multiple times.

            The questions these instances raise are numerous and obvious: Why have these authors and historical figures been left behind? Should the entirety of the Western Canon be placed under the Bechtel test? Should high schools carve out portions in history classes to better reflect the contributions of women? Just to name a few. The call to action is what matters most. It is not a matter of “if” and “when” we should bring our girls back into the English and History classrooms, but simply a matter of how?

            As an aspiring educator this weighs heavily on my mind. Girls and women comprise a higher percentage of enrollments in high school and college classes than ever before- a trend that is only anticipated to rise. Therefore, it has never been more important that they be able to see themselves reflected in the text and the history that they will examine. They need to know that their history does, in fact, have a place in the larger historical narrative and is more than an elective or inter-disciplinary department. It is clear that 51% of the population is not having their stories told.

            In the interest of providing solutions I have come up with a few simple ways in which educators can rectify this imbalance. John Stuart’s Mill’s On the Subjugation of Women should serve as a supplement to Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on the Rights of Women. Let the female voice speak for herself first. Teaching the Constitution should include a reading of Abigail Adams’ plea for her husband to “remember the ladies.” He didn’t and neither have we. The famous midnight ride of Paul Revere was actually only half the length of the ride of his female contemporary, 16 year-old Sybil Luddington, yet many of us may not know she existed. These are not examples of supplemental information or suggested readings. They are important parts of a well-rounded education, the lack of which is short-changing students of all genders. There is no reason to send a girl off to college without having taught her that she can run for President, or that she can invent and refine entire literary movements, or that she can lead an army into battle. She is more than a Queen famously known for having instructed her people to eat cake, an anecdote which is not even accurate. She is more than a wrongly accused witch in an Arthur Miller play. She is more than a fashion-forward First Lady.

            Literature and History curriculums are littered with the works and lives of women and girls who didn’t make the cut. It is time to bring back our girls. If she can see it, if she can read it, she will know she can be it. If he can see it, if he can read it, he will know she can be it and  at least give her the proper fighting chance.

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” Virginia’s words pack quite a punch. They should be taken with the utmost seriousness which she intended. “What a Lark, what a plunge” it will be to finally set our girls free.