A while back, I wrote the following post for the TeachersPayTeachers blog. I’m sharing it here, too, as a repost for new subscribers and anyone who may have missed it the first time around.
The month of March has been officially proclaimed Women’s History Month. While I appreciate the gesture, this declaration won’t have an impact on my classroom. Highlight women’s voices and achievements during the month of March? Nah. I’d rather do that all throughout the year.
Women, as we know, were historically denied access to education. And those who dared to put pen to paper were regularly blocked by publishing firms. Women of our own time like Susan Eloise Hinton (S.E. Hinton) and Joanne Rowling (J.K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith) were persuaded by their publishers to use pen names so as not to repel male readers. And author Catherine Nichols discovered in 2015 that submitting her manuscript to agents under a male pseudonym resulted in more than eight times the number of positive responses than she had received using her own name. The language those agents used to describe her writing was also rather telling; agents raved about the work they thought “George” had written, calling it “clever,” “well-constructed,” and “exciting” — words none of the agents used when they saw a woman named Catherine had created the work.
So sexism in publishing still exists, but it doesn’t need to settle into our classrooms. The list of classics that we teach tends to be dominated by white male writers because schools and publishing houses were (still are?) filled with white male decision-makers; we can help regain some balance, though, by supplementing the required classics with voices that also deserve to be heard anytime of the year, whether it’s April Sinclair, Louisa May Alcott, or June Jordan.
How This Might Look in the Classroom
Take my own freshman classes. When I taught in California, the required core works were Of Mice and Men, The Odyssey, and Romeo & Juliet. All three are rich reads that I love to teach, but there’s not a woman or person of color to be found on the school’s freshman year core author list.
So when it’s time to introduce John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a novella that examines isolation and segregation in California during the 1930s, we also examine the words of Gloria Naylor, an African-American writer who helps clarify the power of a racial slur.
When students visit Sparta during Homer’s The Odyssey, we’ll take a pause in the action and analyze two views of Helen by comparing a male poet, Edgar Allan Poe declaring that the Face that Launched a Thousand Ships sure would’ve been his beacon home, and a female one, Hilda Doolittle who throws some serious shade on the beauty whose selfishness results in the deaths of so many soldier husbands and fathers.
Finally, every study of Shakespeare can be enhanced by reading the section of Virginia Woolf’s essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” where she speculates about the fate of Judith Shakespeare, the playwright’s fictional sister who would’ve been denied all of the education and opportunities given to The Bard. Understanding the limits historically placed on women will help students see that the canon of western literature, while valuable, represents only a limited view of the human experience.
Just as our study of African-American writers like Langston Hughes and Lorraine Hansberry shouldn’t abruptly end at the close of February’s Black History Month, we’d be shortsighted to give women just a month’s worth of attention. A more authentic approach is to bring a wide variety of voices into our classrooms throughout the year. So for every play by Arthur Miller, let’s add a novel by Angie Thomas. Teaching Stephen King? Follow up with Barbara Kingsolver. And, looking at the long term, if we want reading lists that are more inclusive, we need to pilot new titles and join textbook adoption committees. It’s time we become the next generation of decision-makers.
Teach on, everyone.
8 thoughts on “Women’s History Month? Eh… No Thanks”
Thanks for the article—it’ll be my article of the week next week! I’ve been pushing myself to do the same, pulling in voices from people of color and women. It has enriched our discussions!
So cool, Mrs. Turner. Excited that my article will actually be content in your class. That’s crazy-cool!
Hello to Mrs. Turner’s kids! Pay attention to your teacher and bring her chocolate at random times this semester. Happy teacher = Happy classroom
Brilliant! Makes me want to be a student again.
We’re always students, though, aren’t we, Crystal? 😉 When you visit this summer, I’ll let you borrow my copy of Angie Thomas’ new book. It’s great! Miss you.
I agree with you that black, indigenous, feminist and all other types of literature shouldn’t just be presented one month and then forgotten. They need to be tied in throughout learning.
I follow a very chronological pattern in my American Literature class, like most teachers in this grade. I do my best to add in extra readings to offer other perspectives, but by the time we come to the Realism literary period, I didn’t want them to continue to just read white, male authors and only see voices of color that highlighted only the feelings of oppression, which is sadly what we have in our textbooks. So I developed an Alternative Voices unit that features Amy Tan, Sherman Alexie, Maya Angelou, Julia Alvarez and Margaret Atwood. This way, I tell them, they are more likely to find a voice of an author that mirrors their own both in race and gender that is offering up a viewpoint to readers that is often not heard. We finished by writing about empathy and how reading from other perspectives can help. It may not seem like much, but I could see that it helped for those who felt disconnected to what we read.
It is always good to see that there are others who are trying hard to make those connections in their classroom too, which is why I love to read the comments on your blogs just as much as the blogs themselves. It makes me feel less alone for giving up free time in order to make a difference.
Yes, Jennie, anything we can do to widen the canon so that all of our students see themselves represented in the curriculum is time well-spent. So glad you’re making this happen!
I’m a big fan of all of your products from TpT. Do you have an assignment for Virginia Woolf’s essay? Also, where in your study of Romeo and Juliet do you teach that text?
Great questions, Catherine! I don’t have a printable assignment for this one. Sorry about that. Basically, we read a slice of ch. 3 from A Room of One’s Own where Woolf talks about the fictional Judith; then, we’ll do a think-pair-share focusing on the differences between then and now. I fold this in right after Act 3, Scene 5, when my students start to ask why Juliet just doesn’t assert her independence and refuse her parents’ decision that she’ll marry Paris. The Woolf piece helps them think more about the gender issues at play, for sure. Hope this helps! 🙂