July 15, 2011
Matthew Lynch says that we need to expose girls to great women in history as we support them in the complex modern world.
In a responsive model of instruction, teachers seek out and include examples of achievements from both genders. While women and women’s classroom parity has come a long way since the days of Dr. Edward Clarke, it is still difficult to find curriculum texts that reflect an equitable picture of female accomplishments. Progress has been slow to incorporate gender-fair terminology into textbooks. Girls need to read about role models in science and mathematics—not just see pictures of women in lab coats with occasional references to females in the text.
The accomplishments of minority women, women with disabilities, local women from the community, and working class women all are important to help present a complete, realistic and equitable picture of female role models in society. It is valuable for young women to see the variety of ways in which females can impact their communities and their society, regardless of race, ethnic background or financial status. Teachers help overcome the gender inequities and change present perceptions by presenting accomplishments, experiences, and hard work of both men and women.
A balance of the particularistic and the inclusive is required. It is not healthy or productive to promote the historical female experience as completely negative—or to emphasize the struggles and minimize the triumphs—such an approach presents an unrealistic picture and may produce bitterness. Nor is it positive to emphasize men as the “oppressors”—this fosters resentment. Balance promotes equitable, respectful, and cooperative relationships with men in society.
There are many important reasons to emphasize women’s achievements. One of the most important is to build girls’ self-esteem. Blame the magazines, the movies, the models—blame Barbie—pin it on the pin-up girls, but the fact remains: girls struggle with the mixed messages about body image. Particularly impressionable adolescent girls struggle with bulimia, anorexia and the obsession with weight, and sometimes self-inflict injuries and other damage to their bodies.
Many girls who are bulimics and/or cutters have indicated that these actions are the only aspects of their lives over which they have control. Teachers lack the ubiquitous influence of the media to manipulate girls’ self-image. Advertising often pitches to the fundamental needs of the subconscious mind. Sex sells, to be frank—and while we cannot deny it, we do have some means to counter it.
Girls must be guided to see their potential in areas other than the physical. One helpful strategy is to acquaint young girls with the accomplishments of great women, including: Phyllis Wheatley, Marian Wright Edelman, Rosa Parks, Clara Barton, Mary Shelley, Jane Addams, Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Blackwell, Sacagawea,Wilma Mankiller, Isabel Allende, Deborah Sampson Gannett, Dolores Huerta, Frida Kahlo, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sotomayor, Margaret Sanger, Unity Dow, Sally Ride and other women who overcame great odds to be strong and successful.
Each of these women is a standout figure in history or in society because of her hard work, her inner strength and her determination. In a society where supermodels and sex appeal are overvalued, adolescent girls must be reminded of their important inner qualities.
Dr. Lynch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Widener University. Dr. Lynch’s scholarship is intended to make a redoubtable, theoretically and empirically based argument that genuine school reform and the closing of the well-chronicled achievement gap are possible. Dr. Lynch is the author of three forthcoming books; Its Time for Change: School Reform for the Next Decade (Rowman & Littlefield 2012), A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories (Routledge 2012), and The Call to Teach: An Introduction to Teaching and Learning (Pearson 2013). He is also the editor of the forthcoming 2-volume set, Before Obama: A Reappraisal of Black Reconstruction Era Politicians(Praeger 2012).