Erasing Women from our History Textbooks?

history textbooks
(wohnai on Flickr CC BY 2.0)

Members of the Christian Right in Texas want to re-write history textbooks—that is, they want to delete references to Cesar Chavez from social studies, downplay the role of Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement (while playing up the role of white congressmen) and expand the Bible’s position in American history. These editorial changes also include the decision to delete a picture of a businesswoman holding a briefcase in favor of an image of a mother baking a cake.

This isn’t the first time that the Texas School Board has attempted to force conservative values down the throats of American students, and it won’t be the last. Texas has been the site of (and often victor in) a host of pedagogical battles over hot-button issues such as sex education. In a “double victory” for the Eagle Forum in 2004, health textbooks were re-written so that they exaggerated the failure rate of contraceptives, and the word “partners” was deleted in favor of the heteronormative “husband and wife.”

Education shapes our society, solidifying cultural norms and values. So what does it mean when a small group of individuals has the power to re-imagine history in blatantly anti-feminist and mono-cultural terms?

It is tempting to fix blame on Texas Republicans like Don McLeroy, who poured over the pages of these textbooks, making line edits and highlighting references to Christianity. But the real problem rests with book publishers who cave to political pressure because they’ll reap more profit when they agree to portray women as June Cleavers rather than as powerful actors in the economy.

So what can we do about this pedagogical fiasco?

Jeff Schweitzer, a former science advisor in the Bill Clinton administration, suggests that that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation “support a nationally-coordinated effort to promote the local campaigns of rational, reasonable candidates for school boards across the country.” Although more progressive educational leadership would certainly help, it is not enough. American history and social studies textbooks have historically marginalized or ignored women and minorities, so why should we think that a new set of board members would change or even question the status quo?

If we are to truly reinvigorate education, we need to focus on more than just content. Yes, the inclusion of factual information is important, but why don’t we also focus our energies on making sure that students are challenged to engage with their textbooks in a more critical fashion?

If American students have the capacity to evaluate arguments for themselves, to reflect on the values that are presented to them by those in power, maybe then they’ll have the capacity to critically interrogate nationalistic, gendered or otherwise problematic narratives they encounter in history textbooks and elsewhere. That might be a start?

Read more education coverage from Ms.


Amy Williams recently earned her Masters in English from Binghamton University and will be starting work on a Masters in Teaching at Ithaca College this summer.