Gender in the History Discipline

Last year, the AHA’s Perspectives on History assured its readers that, despite many rumors, the number of history majors was rising at most undergraduate institutions. The enrollment statistics it presented, however, raised an alarm on a real threat: the gender imbalance in the historical discipline. Though women earned 60-62% of all baccalaureate degrees in 2010, they accounted for only 40.7% of history degrees. Even more disconcerting was that female history students–67.6% to be precise–flocked to the interdisciplinary bent and racial diversity of gender, ethnic, and area field studies. Academic history also failed to attract minority students, leaving the field primarily white and male.

The status of women in STEM fields has been the focus of national education and policy debates for years now. The spotlight has recently, if temporarily, shifted to women in philosophy as the details of the University of Miami controversy unravel. (You can read more on that here and here.) Yet, few scholars, let alone policy makers, have questioned the gender composition of history majors. Though neither focus exclusively on gender, Sam Wineburg, a distinguished professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, and James Paul Gee, Professor of Literary Studies at Arizona State University, have many pedagogical insights to lend history as it faces the realities of gender disparity.

Both scholars reflect on the way gender frames historical knowledge and affects achievement in the classroom. Sam Wineburg reveals in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts that students think of historical images as gender-coded as early as elementary school. He found that fifth and eight graders gravitated toward free-handing male characters, almost exclusively in the case of boys, when asked to draw pictures of pilgrims, westerners, and hippies engaged in gender-neutral activities of their time. Girls filtered the past through a different lens where men co-existed with women, though they numbered fewer, while boys imaged the past as inhabited by men.

Interestingly enough, the pictures of hippies, which the curriculum covers in a cursory fashion, depicted more women and, as a result, represented genuine accounts of the youth movement. These findings indicate that male-biases in students’ conceptions of history are rooted in formal schooling and the importance given to dominated narratives. They may also account for the low grades girls earn in grade school and their lack of interest in the discipline when they enter higher education.

By the time they reach college, female and male students have been relying on a gendered schema of historical thinking for 12 years. The question remains: how can professors challenge these ingrained approaches to historicizing the past?

Sam Wineburg suggests that professors can balance the way students depict the past by radically shifting the narratives they offer and forcing students to create narratives of their own. He notes that it is not enough add women’s historical achievements to existing syllabi and class lectures. Such contributory history, as Linda Kerber explains, calls attention to women only “insofar as they help men do what men wish to do, whether it be settling the frontier or keeping the factories running; for shock value, as witches or prostitutes or women air service pilots in WWII; [or] in politics of women suffrage, which is understood to have ended in 1919.” Professors must challenge the emphasis on male-dominated economic and political history and give equal validation to seldom-told areas of human experience. They need to call attention to the fact that there is not a single history, despite what K-12 textbooks would have them think, but multiple ones.

Wineburg believes that developing the interpretive acumen of students is the first step to understanding the “multiplicity” of the past. He proposes that students handle historical documents in all their “slippery, cagey, and protean” glory. Wrestling with diaries, images, and accounts drawn from that period would force them to disentangle “the uncertainty and disingenuity of the real world.” When presenting these documents professors should have students discover the historical account for themselves instead of providing them with ready-made interpretations. Not only would students cultivate the ability to frame events, but also the propensity to question fixed histories of gender, race, and class in the past and in the present.

James Paul Gee offers another insight into the decision of women to major in disciplines other than history in What Video Games Can Teach Us About Literacy and Learning. One the learning principles he culled from playing video games is the identity principle. This principle builds on the idea that “learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to mediate on the relationship between new identities and old ones.” He asserts that students’ personal identities affect the way their identities as students develop. Their identity as students, as budding historians in this case, need to bridge with their individual identities. Female students in higher education will find it hard to bridge their “old” identity with their “new” one as history scholars if they believe the average professional historians is white, male, and clad in tweed. Professors could help them overcome this stereotype by fostering an inclusive classroom environment and issuing assignments that allow them to develop their interests so they can see themselves as historians-in-the-making.

Making history accessible to women and more responsive to their stories is no easy task. But if the discipline listens to Wineburg and Gee, it could balance the gender disparity in undergraduate classrooms and train more students in historical ways of knowing so there are fewer “easy marks for snake-oil vendors” in this information age.

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