How Old History Textbooks Covered Women, and Why That Matters Today




Hannah Dustin. Anne Hutchinson. Jane McCrea. Molly Pitcher. Pocahontas. Elizabeth Stark. What do these six women have in common? They are the only women included by name in the lengthy index of A Brief History of the United States, an 1885 U.S. history textbook published by Barnes Historical Series. The page references for four of the women direct the reader to footnotes on those pages.

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Scottish activist Frances Wright was included on page 547 of A Short History of the American People, a U.S. history textbook from 1945. But her advocacy for equal rights was mentioned alongside her apparent physical attractiveness.


An end of chapter question in The Growth of a Nation, a 1937 U.S. history textbook, asked students, “In what kind of public questions are women usually most interested?”


After describing the Nineteenth Amendment, The Story of the American People, another 1937 textbook, proclaimed, “Women now take an active part in helping solve our problems.” Did men exclusively solve all previous problems?


In a stunning example of male-centric, Eurocentric historiography, the author of Mace’s Beginner’s History, a 1930’s textbook published by Rand McNally, wrote in the preface:

With the knowledge of American men and events which the study of our history should give him, the pupil is ready to ask where the first Americans came from. To answer that question, and many others, we must go to European history. We must look at the great peoples of the world’s earlier history, and see how their civilization finally developed into that which those colonists who pushed across the Atlantic to America brought with them.




The table of contents that starts on the next page includes the following chapters:

The Men Who Made America Known to England…
The Men Who Planted New France…
The Men Who Planted Colonies…
The Man Who Helped Win Independence…
The Men Who Fought for American Independence…
The Men Who Crossed the Mountains…
The Men Who Made the Nation Great by Their Inventions…
The Man Who Was the Champion of Democracy
Men of Recent Times Who Made Great Inventions…


The immensely popular American Pageant, a standard textbook in AP U.S. history classes for over 50 years, repeatedly referred to women as “the softer sex” in the 1956 first edition. The assertion that women in America had more rights and opportunities than European women was mentioned multiple times in different sections of the textbook, which made me wonder if the author was trying to lead students to believe women should have been thankful for their inferior status? I would rather see students grapple with primary sources and draw conclusions about American and European equality on their own.


My point is not to cherry pick excerpts so we can drop our jaws with our modern lens at how politically incorrect women were treated in old textbooks. Sure, it’s fascinating. But more importantly, these excerpts are a reminder of why women’s history is a worthy discipline that needs specific attention, why historians and teachers must be deliberate in ensuring the voices of women are infused in our historical interpretations and not relegated to the sparse footnotes that defined the treatment of women in history classes of previous generations.

I cannot possibly begin to list all of the rich Discovery Education resources related to women’s history. Needless to say the count would be exponentially higher than six. I’m glad Discovery Education’s encyclopedia entry for Frances Wright makes no mention of her attractiveness. I’m glad Molly Pitcher is just one example of many in the Female Patriots in the War Effort section of the Revolutionary America chapter of Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook. (I love the part about Sarah Bache and Esther DeBerdt Reed fundraising in Philadelphia. Elevates understanding of women’s contributions in the era past boycotts and Abigail Adams and Republican Motherhood.)

I’m always stunned at how old history textbooks so rarely included primary sources, let alone first person narratives. (See my previous blog post, Let History Speak for Itself!) Some of the old textbooks in my collection include, perhaps, a few sentences on the Seneca Falls Convention. Social Studies Techbook’s reading on the Seneca Falls Convention is five pages long and includes primary source material .

Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook includes “Historical Perspectives” simulations throughout the courses, and ask students to assume the role of women to help contextualize a time period.


Students need to understand the context of a time period, how policies and norms affected women, how grassroots activism helped transform society. A “heroes and contributions” approach to women and minorities leads to this tokenism and trivialization. This approach is also commonplace in older textbooks, with notable women and minorities included in separate boxes on a textbook page or on a double page spread outside of chapter content.

Focusing in on particular notable women is not enough to infuse women’s voices into a history curriculum. I hate “tokenism” and “great man” history, so why would we engage in that for women? Women’s history recognizes the frighteningly overlooked fact that women are a part of history – statistically, they are half of history. Their lives mattered. They shaped the world – each woman individually and all women together – whether or not we remember their names. To ignore this is to fundamentally misunderstand history.

My blog post Celebrate Women’s Suffrage with Image Analysis offers a suggested activity for students to investigate the women’s suffrage movement by analyzing a photograph and a map. Through the activity, students can uncover the “laboratories of innovation” state-by-state legal strategy of women’s suffrage and uncover how the Nineteenth Amendment was the culmination of decades of agitation, not an uncontextualized magic moment after World War I.

Studying women in history is important for students to understand equality issues today. Discovery Education’s Social Studies Techbook uses primary sources from gender equality activism from the 20th century for students to debate the merits of equal pay legislation today. This elevates the study of gender equality past calling attention to notable women and allows students to use primary sources to inquire about the past and draw conclusions about the change over time that connects it to the present.

Some may argue it’s difficult to provide a gender balance in history as more primary sources are available about men. More men as political and military leaders, more men recognized traditionally as writers and artists. But one thing hasn’t changed over time. Women make up half of society. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Leaving out women in history is leaving out half of history. That can’t be an option.



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