How many names of women from American history can the average, recent high school graduate come up with? How does this number compare with the number of males she or he can name? These are the kinds of questions that informed Janice Trecker's classic study of U.S. high school textbooks. (1) They were also the basis for the research in Sadker and Sadker's feminist critique of American education, Failing at Fairness. (2) To virtually no one's surprise, the answers to these questions were, and probably remain, "very few" and "unfavorably."
Trecker's analysis of the most popular American history textbooks of the 1960s went a long way towards explaining these "findings," at least for high school graduates of thirty years ago. The texts omitted women of importance "both from topics discussed and by the topics chosen for discussion." (3) Writing twenty-three years later, Sadker and Sadker focused more on one text, Daniel Boorstin and Brooks Mather Kelley's 1992 edition of A History of the United States, estimating that its history "unfolds against a backdrop of illustrations with four males for every female," with women meriting less than 3 percent of the book's coverage. They found that only eight women had as many as twenty-five lines ("about a paragraph or two") written about them. (4)
According to both studies, women's invisibility in the American history texts read by high school students not only affects students' ideas about the relative importance of men and women in society, but also contributes to their degree of interest (or lack of it) in that history. We agree. We believe that Trecker and Sadker and Sadker, along with Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault, (5) have highlighted a major problem in history education in the United States: namely, that writers of history texts have not (yet) configured their view of history to show that women in the United States, as the Chinese proverb has it, have held up at least one half of the sky. We can't tell, however, by comparing these three studies, one dealing with textbooks of the sixties, one dealing with textbooks of the early eighties and one dealing with textbooks of the nineties, how much more (or less) visible women are in more recent textbooks than they were in older ones. Tetreault suggests that women were, in fact, more likely to be included in the texts she looked at (those of the 1980s) than the ones Trecker had examined (those of the 1960s), but her analysis focuses on 1980s texts alone, and provides no real evidence of the change. (6)
The current debate over the content of American history textbooks suggests that some notable change has, in fact, occurred with respect to the inclusion of women and minorities. (7) Some feel that the change has gone too far, and others that it has not gone far enough. But we haven't actually seen anyone quantify the degree of this change with respect to either women or minorities. The goal of our research has been to see...
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