Representation matters. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and whether we’re talking about a superhero or president or Nobel winning scientist, we have made great strides in showing girls they can truly be anything they want.
Everyone needs role models — footsteps like our own inspire us. Nowhere is accurate representation more important than in telling the stories of our history. History tells us who we are, where we came from, and what we are capable of. It gives us guidance and inspiration, reminding us of those who have come before us and have faced similar trials and triumphed.
Unfortunately, for centuries many stories from history were just that: his stories. Women were written out of history. Their lives and accomplishments were simply left out of history books, making women invisible. After generations of students learning history lessons featuring few if any women, it’s no surprise most people assumed women throughout history had done nothing important
In her pioneering research on gender bias in schools, Myra Sadker pointed out what now seems obvious, “Each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.” Girls who cannot see themselves in their textbooks lose a critical connection to the women of history. Without the stories of hard work and accomplishments of others like them, their sense of what they are capable of is diminished.
It has been our mission from the outset to improve the representation of women in history textbooks. In 1980, the National Women’s History Project was formed by a group of women, many of us teachers, who recognized the importance of telling the whole story. We set out to change the dangerous perception that women in the past hadn’t done anything worthwhile. We intended to “write women back into history.”
To help teachers incorporate the stories of women into their lessons, we created a broad range of teaching guides. We collected information of women’s lives and achievements from across the country, becoming a clearinghouse of women’s history resources for a wide audience. In the decades since, our staff has conducted women’s history training sessions and women’s historic site tours in 42 states. We have trained over 30,000 teachers and federal program managers and have delivered over 2,500 speeches.
We also recognized the importance of a nationwide celebration of the important roles women played in American history. We lobbied Congress and the White House for an annual event to celebrate and recognize women’s role in history, first with a designated Women’s History Week in 1980, and then in 1987, the entire month of March was declared National Women’s History Month. Every year since, we have coordinated a month-long celebration of women’s history throughout the country, setting the annual theme, producing educational materials, and choosing particular women to honor nationally for their contributions to our national history.
In the nearly forty years since our first meeting, we have never wavered in our cause: to teach as many people as possible about the importance of women’s history. We believe that knowing women’s stories gives all of us—female and male—the power and inspiration to succeed. By including women’s history, we can understand the past more clearly, and that will give us the power to change the future. Our history is our strength.
Molly Murphy MacGregor
Molly Murphy MacGregor is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the National Women’s History Project (http://www.nwhp.org/)