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Teaching The World Since 1945


Teaching Gender in The World Since 1945: Tools and Resources

Samantha Christiansen


     The World Since 1945 as a course can offer a particularly good avenue for incorporating gender analysis into a survey-level history course, yet the task is still a challenge. Like any survey course, The World Since 1945 in practice often tends away from a deep engagement of a local experience in lieu of breadth of coverage. There are important exceptions to this approach, but a perusal of internet-available syllabi, as well as numerous conversations with colleagues teaching the course for years, reveals at least a widespread pattern of sacrificing depth for the necessary breadth. The number of times my colleagues and I have all stated, "I'd love to cover that, but there just isn't space in the syllabus" is innumerable, and represents genuine frustration felt designing the course outline.

     Among the many nuances trimmed away (however painfully), gender analysis is often an early victim. Indeed, gender analysis is so lacking in the standard texts and interpretations of The World Since 1945 that the question feels less like how to avoid cutting it than how to incorporate it in the first place. Compounding the issue is the resistance many students express when asked to do gender analysis in "regular" history class; while certainly some are excited by the presence of gender analysis, there is a large portion who have not encountered the practice in previous survey history classes (or even at all) and feel like it is either specialized history, or even that it belongs in the domain of sociology or women's studies. There is also the difficult question of when and how to implement gender analysis into the course in a way that is meaningful beyond simply adding in the personal stories and voices of a few women. Ulrike Strasser and Heidi Tinsman addressed this very issue in an essay regarding a world history survey they taught, explaining that they made,

…a conscious attempt to move away from the association of gender analysis with 'the family' (writ small), or 'everyday life,' or 'history from the bottom up.' Not that these are not important categories for studying and teaching the history of the world. However, if these remain the sole rubrics in which women or gender relations appear in textbooks (if they appear at all), we send a rather misleading message to students. 'Real (big) history' or 'universal history'--the one that deserves most space in your textbook--is the terrain of formalized power relationships which just happens to be the domain of men. In so doing, we don't merely erase vast parts of women's experience from the historical record, we incidentally also make it impossible to study men's experience as that of men, that is to say as an experience always constituted in relation to that of women.1

Strasser and Tinsman's approach reminds us of an important warning: while we do want to include the experiences and voices of women, we have to be careful that we do not further confirm the patriarchal notions of women as emotional and domestic, and men as rational and public in the way we choose to include them. If we only discuss women when they are in traditionally defined roles (or even worse, when they are in victim roles) and never mark the gender of men or the gendered aspects of their experience, we run a strong risk of reinforcing stereotypical and sexist thinking students may be accustomed to in historical narratives (and in their own lives). Further, while certainly it is an important step to render women less invisible in the narrative, the value of gender analysis in a history classroom is not simply to inform students that both men and women experienced things in the past. The real value of gender analysis in any class is to provide students with the tools to understand both the structural and personal dimensions of gender in society and in individual identity. When gender is used alongside other lenses through which to view the past, students gain a deeper understanding of the material in a range of dimensions.

     Recognizing that there are no simple answers to many of the challenges that including gender in a World since 1945 class can present, and acknowledging that the issue is part of a much larger discussion than the purpose of this article, there are a few guideposts we can make use of in trying to configure our courses to be better. First, gender analysis should be woven into numerous places of the course as a component, not as an anomaly. When discussing a "political" topic such as the formation of the United Nations, for example, students can consider not only the gender make up of the organization, but also how ideas about leadership and masculinity can be observed in the decisions taken by those in power. This is critical because not only does it unsettle the unmarked men of the narrative, but it also conveys to students the idea that gender is not a special topic only applied at certain times. Second, a conscious effort should be made to demonstrate moments of oppression and agency across the gender spectrum. We must look over our readings and double check that we have not exclusively included voices of victimized women and abusive men. While certainly patriarchal structures have contributed to a great deal of gendered violence since 1945 that must be examined in the course, we must also look for moments of power for women and vulnerability for men. For example, the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell,2 about women organizing in Liberia, presents an excellent lens for understanding warlord violence that depicts women in moments of both victimization and in power. Third, assignments should present a place where students can explore the nuances that gender analysis provides. Rather than simply looking for gender, students should be asked to consider it. Emphasizing that "women" and "men" are not fixed categories across time and place, students can explore through writing and class discussion the way that gender intersects with other factors such as race, class, nationality, and religion, and how those intersections can be seen within the historical material. While certainly there are a number of other considerations in any syllabus, taking a moment to do a "gender analysis" of our syllabus is helpful in identifying when and where we are successfully providing opportunities for gender analysis and where we need work.

     Below, I will share four of the specific ways that I have incorporated gender analysis into the World Since 1945 class. These assignments and readings have been used in a number classrooms at several different institutions with very different student populations.

Readings and Paper Prompt: Post-War Promises

A major theme I incorporate in my course is the idea that World War II, and the end of it specifically, represented certain promises to the world community. I emphasize that there were several competing promises being imagined, and placing those competing visions of the ideal post-war world next to each other is a useful way for students to consider different viewpoints on power and society. One particularly nice contrast comes from reading two accounts of World War II and its aftermath in Europe. The first, A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany by Maria Höhn and Martin Klimke3 presents the war period and aftermath through the experience of African Americans in the US Army, both in Germany and in the US. The book provides an excellent framework for students to break apart "men," (or "soldier") as a category and consider other factors such as race and nation. It also gives students a personal perspective, via oral histories, of the experience of men that is emotional and personal. The second book is the more commonly assigned memoir, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 by Heda Margolius Kovaly.4 Students respond very positively to the account of Kovaly's experience during the war and in post-war Prague, and the book is engaging while still presenting an informed political analysis of post-war Czechoslovakia. It also includes a number of gender commentaries from the author and invites excellent discussion of the role of gender in politics and daily life. The two perspectives together provide a complex picture of European reconstruction and of the ways that political negotiations both affected and were effected by individuals. After reading the two books (or making use of the recent full feature documentary based on A Breath of Freedom5 to reduce the quantity of pages assigned) students write an essay comparing the promises and betrayals found in each. I specifically ask students to address how gender is a factor in those promises and betrayals. This is a particularly good assignment for encouraging students to consider gender, since the oppressions depicted in both accounts are not overtly based on gender and it pushes students to apply the lens where it could easily be left out of the discussion.

Readings and Class Activity: The Veil as Repression and Resistance

The topic of the headscarf, as related to Muslim women, is a rich arena for gender analysis, and The World Since 1945 provides an excellent platform for this. In this assignment, I assign a book chapter entitled "Culture and Rebellion: The Appropriation and Transformation of the Veil in the Algerian Revolution" by Rick Fantasia and Eric L. Hirsch.6 This article examines the use of the veil as an empowered, anti-colonial symbol during the French colonial period in Algeria and unsettles popular depictions of the veil as a symbol of patriarchy. In conjunction, I show an excerpt from the film the Battle of Algiers7 in which Algerian revolutionary women dress in Western clothing for easier access to carry bombs through security checkpoints. This is a specifically gendered way to teach the subject of the Algerian war, and one in which women are not depicted as victims. For the second component, I assign the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.8 This memoir of the Iranian Revolution and post-revolutionary Iran presents the veil as an oppressive mandate from the state. Satrapi provides numerous depictions of women, including herself, expressing frustration and anger over the required clothing. Finally, I assign contemporary newspaper articles and commentaries on the issue of the veil-- most recently I referenced the 2011 French ban on the veil in public. In a class activity, I ask students to consider how the different perspectives on the veil create a more complex picture of meaning for those wearing it than their prior assumptions had allowed. I ask them to list reasons the state should ban the veil and reasons it should be allowed. I ask students if the issue is wearing a veil, or being able to choose to wear a veil. This leads to a discussion that broadens into the role of the state and, for many students, opens new doors to considering a highly politicized topic through a historically informed lens.

Readings and Writing Assignments: Gendering Post-colonialism

Decolonization and the post-colonial experience is a major theme in The World Since 1945. I teach my students that just as colonialism was a highly gendered system, post-colonialism must be viewed through the lens of gendered experience. In this aspect of the course I focus on African post-colonialism by assigning two pieces of postcolonial literature and ask students to consider how gender affects the obligations and pressures felt by the characters in the novels. Taking advantage of the fact that novels read a bit more quickly than academic monographs, I ask students to read both within a fairly short period of time. The first novel I assign is A Man of the People, by Chinua Achebe.9 Based on a fictional post-colonial African setting, the novel explores post-colonial corruption and masculinity, and challenges the idealism of the independence narrative. The second novel I assign is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga.10 This novel is a fictional account of the post-colonial period in Rhodesia in the 1960s. Both novels depict highly personal accounts of the post-colonial struggles and through literary form allow for a deeply empathetic engagement on the part of students. Given the personal nature of both novels, I ask students to write a short reflection paper on each novel. Informed by the feminist idea that space needs to be created within the academy for emotional responses, I encourage students to set aside a historical argument in their reflection papers and consider the shared human experience they saw in the novels. Then, I assign a prompted essay that requires the students to consider the novels as pieces of intentional post-colonial literature. Moving beyond the question of how gender functions in the situation, I ask students to consider how each author uses a gendered narrative as a piece of post-colonial fiction (in class we discuss postcolonial writing as a venue for power and reclaiming the space once dominated by silencing forces) and how it affects our understanding of the material. The goal is to highlight for students that a gendered argument about the historical situation is being presented in both cases, and to analyze how gender can be deployed as an informative and argumentative tool in historical literature. This also transitions quite well into a class discussion of where historical arguments are being made in popular media today (and the use of gender within them).

Figure 1
  Figure 1: map of world decolonization. Wikimedia Commons.  


Reading and Reflection: Feminism and Society

The final, and perhaps most obvious, opportunity to incorporate gender analysis into The World Since 1945 comes by way of second wave feminism as a topic of study for the course. The classic reading of the feminist movement, Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique11 (in excerpts) offers a great point of departure for considering the consumerism of postwar American society and the ways that many Americans across the gender spectrum felt pressures to conform to a lifestyle that was lacking in personal meaning. In class discussions regarding whether this is really a "feminist" mystique, or perhaps a "consumer capitalist" mystique, opens doors to exploring the Cold War culture of the United States through a gendered lens. Including a lecture on the basics of second-wave feminism in The World since 1945 provides an excellent case study for the changing social and political norms of the period. In my experience, students are eager to discuss feminism and have consistently provided a rich classroom discussion when asked about how gender plays out in their own lives as compared to the perspective presented by Friedan.


While it can be a challenge in any survey course, the inclusion of gender analysis in The World Since 1945 provides students with new categories of analysis that they may have not considered in previous history classes. It also enriches their understanding of the material in a meaningful way. Gender analysis should, in fact, not be evaluated in terms of what it is adding to a course, but rather, a class absent of gender analysis should be evaluated on what it is missing.

Samantha Christiansen is Assistant Professor of History and Director of Women's Studies at Marywood University. She received her Ph.D in History from Northeastern University in 2012, and is a specialist in South Asian and World History with strong interest in Social Movements, Urban History and Gender. She is co-editor of The Third World in the Global 1960s (Berghahn, 2012) and a number of chapters and articles exploring the convergence of politics and culture. She is currently writing a textbook, The Global Sixties (Bloomsbury). Prior to joining Marywood, she taught at Northeastern University, Babson College, Clark University, and Independent University Bangladesh.


1 Ulrike Strasser and Heidi Tinsman, "Engendering World History," at World History Connected: Accessed April 15, 2014. It is noted that this is reprinted from Radical History Review, Volume 91, pp. 151-164. Copyright, 2005, MARHO: The Radical Historians Organization, Inc.

2 Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker (New York: Balcony Releasing) 2008.

3 Höhn, Maria and Martin Klimke, A Breath of Freedom: The Civil Rights Struggle, African American GIs, and Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

4 Margolius, Kovály, Heda. Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1997).

5 Breath of Freedom: Black Soldiers and the Battle for Civil Rights (narrated by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Smithsonian Channel, 2014. Available at

6 Fantasia, Rick and Eric L. Hirsch. "Culture and Rebellion: The Appropriation and Transformation of the Veil in the Algerian Revolution" in Social Movements and Culture, Eds. Hank Johnston and Bert Klandermans (Minneapolis: U. of Minneapolis Press), 1995, pp. 144-159.

7 Battle of Algiers. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. (Irvington, N.Y.: Criterion Collection, 2004).

8 Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis (New York: Pantheon, 2003).

9 Achebe, Chinua. A Man of the People. Norwell: Anchor, 1998).

10 Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. (Seattle: Seal Press, 1988).

11 Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1963).


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