‘A Womanless History’: The Importance of Including Women in the Historical Narrative

A fraction of historical figures taught in K–12 classrooms are women. How can we expect society to value women when we neglect the accomplishments of those that paved the way?

A depiction of Wu Zetian, originally published and produced in China in the 18th century (British Library, Shelfmark Or. 2231); Peseshet, the earliest known female physician in ancient Egypt; and Queen Boudica in John Opie’s painting Boadicea Haranguing the Britons.

Since 1973, Aug. 26 has been recognized annually as Women’s Equality Day. The day acknowledges and celebrates the passage of the 19th Amendment, through which women’s right to vote was finally enshrined in the Constitution. But Women’s Equality Day also serves as a stark reminder that we are still living in an unequal world—inequality that is particularly evident in the mass underrepresentation of women in the historical narrative and the way that women’s contributions to history and society have been neglected in the educational space.

A study conducted in 2017 found that of the 737 individual historical figures taught in K–12 classrooms, only 178 are women. Another found only 3 percent of educational materials actually focus on the contributions of women to history and society. This is detrimental, particularly in children’s formative years: A survey conducted by the National Women’s History Museum found that less than a quarter of respondents could remember the accomplishments of historical female figures, but three-quarters could easily recall the accomplishments of male figures they distinctly remembered learning about in their textbooks. Nearly 76 percent of history books are written by men, and less than 10 percent of those men write about women.

Acknowledging the contributions made by women throughout history impacts not only the way that men value women, but also the way that women value themselves. “Time and again, research has proven that female role models—heroines—are powerful motivators in women’s personal and professional lives,” said Susan Whiting, chair of the board of directors for the National Women’s History Museum.

Can you imagine what a difference it would make in the way men treat women in today’s society if they were taught as young boys that one of the world’s first emperors was a woman? (Wu Zetian)

What a difference it would make in the way women feel about themselves in today’s society if they were taught as young girls that one of the world’s first known writers was a woman. (Enheduanna)

Some of our earliest examples of doctors (Peseshet) and leaders (Cleopatra) and mathematicians (Hypatia) and military commanders (Boudica) were all women. 

What a difference it would make in the way women are valued in today’s society if boys and girls alike were taught about women’s historical contributions to medicine, science, literature, art, culture and more.

History is all about precedent, and it has a powerful ripple effect: Every time one woman is empowered, she empowers another. On the other hand, “each time a girl opens a book and finds a womanless history, she learns she is worth less,” said educator Myra Pollack Sadker. Representation matters. How can a young girl be what she cannot see? How can we expect society to value women when we neglect the accomplishments and contributions of the ones that paved the way?

Girls and young women make up more than half of the K–12 student population. It’s time to equally represent women in the historical narrative. It’s time to show that women have always been important creators and contributors to history. Knowing and learning about the women that came before us empowers us and encourages us to persevere, even in the face of the inequalities that continue to exist for women in America today. 

As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day once again, let’s place urgency on the importance of including women equally in the historical narrative. Not until everyone knows the full contributions that women have made throughout history will they be able to see women as equal, active participants in the world.

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Rachel Lee Perez is a two-time published author, paralegal, ballet instructor, content editor and podcaster. As co-host of the "Hashtag History” podcast, she releases weekly episodes about history’s greatest stories of controversy, conspiracy and corruption. Find "Hashtag History" on all major podcast platforms or on their website.