Quick, name ten women no longer living, who have made significant contributions to history. Difficult to do, isn't it? Dr. Cindy Griffin, a professor in the department of speech communication and member of the Women's Studies executive board, routinely asks her classes to perform this exercise on the first day of class, and she has yet to see a class that is able to present a list of women's names.
As we realize how difficult this seemingly simple task of naming a mere ten women in history truly is, the realization of why women's history should be an important part of our education becomes apparent.
"We sort of take for granted that we don't know much about women," Griffin said. "But that ought to seem odd. It's not like women were invented in the 1970s."
As recently as 1980, a group of women who went on to found the National Women's History Project noted, "women were absent from our texts. No more than 3 percent of the content was devoted to women." While history teachers and observers note that women's inclusion in history curriculum has indeed increased greatly in recent years, it is still a difficult aspect of study in many ways.
First of all, finding records of women's activities in historical documents is a tricky task: writing about or by women is often difficult to come by. "Those in power record what is important and familiar to them," notes Griffin. Historically, Griffin said, "Men have typically had the power to make laws and run our presses – it's in some ways an unintentional by-product. It's not necessarily a mean-spirited thing."
Indeed, even today we often regard things such as war, government actions and scientific advances as the essential events in history and rarely consider the activities women were engaged in (and in many cases around the world, continue to engage in) as essential to the historical record. "Women were engaged in more day-to-day running of affairs, which wasn't seen as important," Griffin said. That these activities of women made what would be deemed "significant" historical events and inventions possible in many cases is something that should seriously be considered, and indeed the ways in which women were active in such events (even if on the 'home front') is still vital historical information.
Another reason women are often left out of the historical record, suggests Griffin, is due to the fact women were routinely denied access to formal education up until recent times. While Griffin points out that women were indeed participants in science and literatures through their activities as midwives, makers of soap, writers of letters and diaries and other pursuits, such activities did not fall within the bounds of academic sciences and were often therefore overlooked as historical achievements. This lack of access to education also limited women's ability to write about the activities in which they were participating, something that increases the invisibility of records on women's lives and contributions.
While digging up information on women's lives and contributions may be difficult, it is good to note that many feel representation has indeed increased in recent years. "I would say that women are represented more often and more thoroughly now than used to be the case, especially in 'mainstream history texts,'" notes Dr. Diane Margolf, who teaches history classes (including a course on Women and Gender in Europe) here at CSU. Looking at text books from the 1970s and more recent editions of similar material, Margolf found the more recent books included more information about women's roles in the economy, intellectual life and discussions of family lives of important women as well.
Such representation is essential in providing young students a vision of themselves in roles they might not have considered. Young women, notes Griffin, often don't see historical examples of what women might achieve, and this invisibility results in "a lack of support that has profound implications" for women and girls today. It is important, therefore, to continue working towards recognizing women in the classroom and beyond and provide historic role models.
As Margolf suggests, "There are still plenty of unanswered questions and unexplored sources about women of the past… But that kind of 'lack' should ideally become a stimulus for further scholarship and teaching, rather than a barrier to such work."
We should indeed strive to continue to uncover more about the lives and activities of women of the past (as difficult as it may be) and allow everyone to find even more role models throughout history.
Meg Burd is an open option seeking technical journalism major. Her column runs every Thursday in the Collegian.