Diversifying the US Survey: New Curriculum for Women's History

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I was asked at least twice during the month of March to explain “the point” of studying women’s history. How, the first well-meaning person questioned, does taking a class that examines US history from the lens of women’s lives differ from taking general US history? In the second conversation a student questioned why I believe that US Women’s History is an important course for Economics majors to take: “If it’s so important, why doesn’t my Economics program require it?”


My pet peeve about the “months” approach to celebrating history (February = Black History, March = Women, etc) is that for a few short weeks topics that I view as important in every history class suddenly take center stage. But when the month ends, more often than not, the traditional narrative resumes. 


I’ve written before in this space about the necessity of diversifying the US survey. As much as we see amazing work being done by historians on an array of diverse topics, students still regularly share with me that in their US history classes they meet African Americans in the larger narrative in only two places: during the Civil War and the post-World War II civil rights movement. Women appear amidst a discussion of the 19th amendment and “flappers,” only to disappear and then return to the narrative as goddesses of white domesticity in the 1950s. In 2021 we have to do better. 


This week, then, I’d like to draw our Macmillan Community members’ attention to the New York Historical Society’s work-in-progress web site that shares an open access women’s history curriculum that can help even the most novice historian to incorporate women into their classroom narrative. Women & the American Story (WAMS) presents material in units that include images, suggested lecture and discussion topics, and lists of key themes and questions, in addition to background materials. 


Historian Allyson Schettino describes the WAMS curriculum this month in an article titled “Where are the Women: Promoting Inclusions in Survey History Courses” in The American Historian, a publication of the Organization of American Historians. Schettino writes, “Through WAMS, we seek to make the history taught in our classrooms more representative, accurate, and engaging. When more students see themselves reflected in the social studies curriculum, they recognize their own agency. When students see a broader range of experiences represented in the narrative of the American past, they learn to value diversity and appreciate difference. Both strengthen our democracy.” I’m excited to see the New York Historical Society's work in women's history continue and to incorporate some of their open-access materials into my fall courses.


As we prepare for the 2021-22 academic year I would love to share more projects like WAMS that are offering free resources to academics with the goal of increasing diversity. If you are working on a web site or other similar project that you would like to share, please contact me and let’s spread the word! 

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.