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Textbooks, Gender, and World History

Linda Jones Black
Texas A & M University at College Station

    Three of the characteristics of a democratic classroom are the concepts of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity. One of the areas in which these concepts must be applied is in the use of classroom materials, particularly textbooks, which demonstrate gender equity. The idea of gender equity——or providing a fair and just education with equal opportunity for both male and female students—should be the standard for all schools. As Maxine Greene wrote in Defining and Redefining Gender Equity in Education, "A commitment to justice and equality . . . can only emerge from what John Dewey called 'a community in the making.' This struggle for gender equity . . . is a part of a larger struggle for justice in our ever-changing world." 1 Research on the issue of gender equity in education, and textbooks in particular, has increased significantly in the last twenty-five years. In many of these studies, however, it was found that gender equity did not always exist in American education or in American textbooks. This article will focus on three topics involving gender and gender equity in the classroom: first, it will offer a brief history of examining gender equity in textbooks; second, it will discuss recent studies of how women are portrayed in world history textbooks; and third, it will provide a conceptual framework for exploring the issue of gender in world history.
    The importance of textbooks not only as disseminators of information but as reinforcers of what students perceive as appropriate gender roles cannot be underestimated. Textbooks are still the most widely used means of transmitting information to students, and they are often viewed by students as the official, authoritative version of the world because they are usually approved and furnished by the state. Furthermore, the average teacher actually uses the textbook for seventy to ninety per cent of the classroom time.2.
     Textual analysis that explores the coverage of women in history books has a history dating back at least to the Renaissance, when Christine de Pisan claimed her right to reread male-authored texts about women as a woman.3 In the mid 20th century, political and social events such as the civil rights and women's movements provided the context wherein "texts began to give more space to groups that had been marginalized throughout history."4 However, many children's books of the 1970s still contained extensive examples of gender bias. For example, one of the first detailed analyses of elementary texts—the 1975 Dick and Jane As Victims: Sex Stereotyping in Children's Readers5exposed widespread stereotyping in children's texts. Other textbook studies from the 1970s revealed that women were rarely mentioned, and that on the occasions they were discussed, both white and non-white females were depicted inaccurately.6
    At about the same time, however, the federal government began to address the issue of gender equity in education with the passage of Title IX in 1972, and of the Women's Educational Equity Act in 1974. Title IX made sex discrimination in schools illegal, while the Women's Educational Equity Act provided funding for research and training to help schools eliminate sex bias. One result of the combination of both negative publicity and federal legislation was that textbook companies—including Scott Foresman, Ginn, Macmillan, McGraw-Hill, Harper & Row, and others—responded with the first set of guidelines by the mid-1970s that pledged to recognize the historical contributions of women and minorities, and to end stereotyping and sexist language within their textbooks. Their guidelines offered recommendations to authors and illustrators about how to write books that were fair to both sexes.7 4
    In the 1980s, even though publishing companies began to add information about women into history textbooks, the format for these additions did not add up to gender equity. Both the organization of the texts as well as the selection of topics continued to be defined by male-centered priorities. Women, in fact, only entered the story if they had been famous, were from elite families, or if they were the first women to make contributions in areas traditionally dominated by men (e.g. Elizabeth I, Marie Curie). Moreover, the placement of this information was either in the margins of the text or at the end of chapters rather than integrated into the main narrative.8 Not only was the information on women marginalized, but the social context surrounding these women was also usually omitted—a fact that made in difficult to understand their lives and actions. 5
    In 1992, a groundbreaking report entitled How Schools Shortchange Girls was issued by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). The report summarized the available research on the education of girls for the previous twenty years, including the analysis of curriculum and textbooks. Reflecting information from more than 1,300 studies, the results of the report demonstrated that, although it had been thirty years since the beginning of the modern feminist movement and twenty years since publishing companies adopted gender fair guidelines, girls were not receiving the same quality or even quantity of education as boys.9
    Reviews of 1990s textbooks found that texts were significantly less sexist than those of the 1970s and 1980s, but that they still lacked gender equity. For example, a 1992 study of United States History textbooks by the Education Committee of the Western Association of Women Historians found major improvements in texts in the amount of attention given to women, in the lack of sexist language, and in the inclusion of illustrations of women.10 However, the reviewers still had concerns that textbooks lacked gender analysis within the historical context, that women were not always integrated into the main narrative, and that information on women's economic contributions, in particular, seemed limited.11 In 1999, the AAUW issued a follow-up report entitled Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children. In assessing the changes since the 1992 report, it reported that, "Today's textbooks are . . . somewhat more balanced than texts in 1992. Textbook producers have made a greater effort to include women and to reflect female as well as male perspectives on topics covered." 12 However, the practice still continued of portraying women in stereotypical roles that reinforced gender biases.
    Until the 1990s, the literature describing gender bias in textbooks dealt primarily with secondary-level U.S. history textbooks. However, a review of recent literature found three studies dealing specifically with high school world history textbooks, one of which took a comparative approach, using similar criteria to examine textbooks published in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
    In 1996, Commeyras and Alvermann analyzed three popular secondary world history textbooks using reading techniques for coding and interpreting content.13 They examined what was emphasized about women in each textbook and how language was used to position women in history. Coding categories or patterns that emerged from their analysis of the texts included: famous women, rights, marriage, religious connection, power, opportunity in absence of men, restricted movement, child bearer, obedience, work roles, socioeconomic status, education, inheritance, home sphere, fighters, and mediators.14 Their results confirmed previous studies in the 1990s which found that although blatant examples of sexism had been removed from textbooks and more information on women had been added, men still dominated the narrative and textbook language still functioned to position historical women in stereotypical ways. In addition, the authors argued that gender bias existed in these texts in even subtler ways. For example, when the texts featured laws or codes—such as Roman law or Hammurabi's Code—they did not discuss who wrote or approved them, which tended to mask the underlying patriarchal system that existed in such societies.15 9
    Early in 2005, the National Council for the Social Studies journal Social Education published a study on women in eighteen world history textbooks published in the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s as a companion piece to a previous article on women in American history textbooks from the same decades.16 The goal of the study was to "ascertain how much more (or less) visible women have become in popular world history books used in American high schools in the last three decades."17 The quantitative method that was employed used a random sampling of each text to examine the following six indicators: the ratio of women to men in index, the percent of pages mentioning women, the number of women about whom a paragraph was devoted, the ratio of named women to men in pictures, the percent of pictures with women, and the percent of sentences mentioning women. Two tables displayed the resulting statistical data charting the change in women's inclusion in high school textbooks over time. 10
    The authors concluded that men received more coverage than women in all three decades, but that the percentage of women included in the texts and illustrations increased over time. For example, looking at one category over all three time periods, the authors found a total of 853 female names in the index of the eighteen books compared to 10,958 male names. Broken down by decades, the ratio of women to men in the index, on average, increased from 3.2 females for every 100 males in the 1960s textbooks, to 5.9 females for every 100 males, to 10.6 females for every 100 males.18 The authors suggested three reasons for this increase in women's visibility: the feminist movement, a 1971 article in Social Education that examined women in U.S. history textbooks,19 and the increased number of women authors or co-authors in 1990s texts.20 However, as in any study, the choice of 'subjects' used in the study, in this case certain texts, definitely affected the outcome. Since this study dealt with high school textbooks, one might question why experienced high school educators, as well as university faculty, were not consulted when identifying textbooks from all three decades. As a result, some widely-used textbooks by major publishing companies were not included. Examples of excluded books were: The History of Our World (Houghton Mifflin) 1960s-1980s, Living World History (Scott, Foresman and Company), World History: Traditions and New Directions (Addison- Wesley), and World History Perspectives on the Past (D.C. Heath) 1980s and 1990s, and Links Across Time and Places: A World History (McDougal Littell and Company) and World History: Patterns of Civilization (Prentice Hall).21 If these texts had been included in the study, perhaps the results might have been different, or at least more accurate. In addition, one text used in the study only covered the history of the world since 1500 CE, which probably restricted its adoption in many states, and made its validity as part of the study questionable.22 11
    The third study that analyzed current world history textbooks was an unpublished dissertation which examined the presentation of women in selected chapters of five widely-used high school world history textbooks published between 2000 and 2003.23 The author used both quantitative measures to determine the amount of coverage of men and women as well as qualitative 'thematic' questions about the nature of the information presented. The quantitative method examined the following categories for coverage of both men and women: writing and editing credits, text, and illustrations in text and in sidebars. Qualitative data was represented by an analysis of illustrations according to the following questions and categories: "Do the illustrations present women [men] in the following roles: domestic roles, non-domestic roles, citizen roles, governmental roles, religious roles, and military roles."24 12
    The results of this study were similar to previous studies in that it concluded there was more information about men than women, both in the narrative and in illustrations. Moreover, the author found that in analyzing the roles portrayed in illustrations, the qualitative analysis varied according to the text, but still supported a patriarchal dominance over women, with women identified in domestic roles in 47% of illustrations.25 In addition, "a fairly high percentage of the illustrations that featured women were sidebars with information that related to a larger subject that was not included in the larger body of information," although this percentage varied between texts. 26 This result, in particular, was similar to the studies of the 1980s texts. 13
    However, in looking at the author's choice of societies or 'themes' to be used in the study (ie. ancient Egypt, Fertile Crescent, Greece, Rome and Byzantium) it is clear that these all represent a traditional, Eurocentric regional focus and are drawn from time periods in which patriarchal societies were the norm. There are no sub-Saharan, Asian, or American societies represented. The author explains these choices by stating that these particular themes tended to represent "the most taught curricula by world history teachers in a given school year,"27 which, even though it may be true, does not justify the exclusion of non-western societies and societies from different time periods. 14
    The results of the study also found that out of eleven total contributing authors or editors, six were men and five were women, a significant increase from the textbooks of the 1960s as identified by the previous study by Clark, Ayton, Frechette, and Keller. Another interesting part of the study is located in an appendix and contains a brief summary of what is written in these textbooks about women compared to what certain feminist historians have written about these same women.28 It is here that the author discusses the issue of what constitutes historical significance and is worthy of inclusion in a history textbook. 15
    In looking at these studies of how—and how much—women are included in world history textbooks, has the quantity and quality of information about women in world history textbooks increased? By certain measures reported in these studies, yes, it has. Do the world history textbooks of today represent gender equity in the classroom? No, probably not, according to our original definition of gender equity. However, there are also other problems encountered in creating and producing world history textbooks. The lack of agreement among various stake-holding groups about what exactly constitutes world history, the issue of what is appropriate for secondary students to study, and conflicting ideas about how best to include women's history into the broader framework are all major concerns. Add to those concerns other variables such as the often contradictory agendas of varying political and social groups, the requirement of profitability by publishing companies in a market economy, the multiple state standards for textbook adoptions, and the renewed emphasis on high stakes testing, and you have the world of contemporary textbook publishing. 16
    The use of textbooks in classrooms also involves the related issue of teacher preparation. If pre-service teachers have been trained in multicultural gender equity, they are then also better equipped to choose materials and textbooks that are more inclusive. However, studies done between 1993 and 1996 demonstrated the lack of gender equity training for pre-service teachers in colleges and universities around the country.29 In addition, the choice of social studies methods textbooks can also make a difference in teacher preparation where the issue of gender equity is concerned. A survey of social studies methods textbooks found that some mention gender issues, but few give suggestions or guidelines for choosing appropriate textbooks or for discussing issues of gender with students.30 Only one text was identified that devoted a chapter section to issues of gender equity: this text contained two instructional strategies that pre-service teachers could later use in the classroom for teaching about gender issues.31 17
    The results of examining recent studies of secondary world history texts for evidence of gender equity have demonstrated that, although progress has been made, world history texts have not yet met this expectation. Therefore, if, one of the characteristics of a democratic classroom is the use of materials that reflect gender equity, how, then, can educators teach about women and men in world history in an equitable manner? What does our goal of gender equity look like in the study of world history? Many believe that it means world history must be seen through the eyes of both women and men, listened to through the voices of both women and men, and written about by both women and men. Not only should textbooks contain equitable numbers of sentences and illustrations about women and men and have equitable numbers of female and male authors, editors, reviewers, and consultants, but educators as well as authors must be able to conceptualize and visualize world history in a way that includes gender as a major theme or unit of analysis. This conceptualization must blend elements of class, race, and ethnicity in a way that speaks of the dynamic and ever-changing complexity of the human condition, all within intersecting planes of time and space. This idea of intersectionality represents a complex process where individuals are not merely determined by their categories but by their humanity, as they move in and through these categories with all "the contradictions and ruptures that the intersections among the categories represent."32 18
    Perhaps one way of conceptualizing gender in world history, with or without textbooks, is through the creation and use of questions for both the teacher and the student as they continually examine, construct, and reconstruct their perceptions of gender throughout their study. Tetreault, in her 1987 Social Education article "Rethinking Women, Gender, and the Social Studies," used questions in just such a way.33 The following questions could be used to enable teachers and students to reflect upon issues of gender in a world history course:

•      What does it mean to be female and male in a certain time and place?
•      How is gender a social construction?34
•      What does the particular construction of gender in a society tell us about that society?35
•      How do social constructions of gender in our own time influence our perception of gender in other times and other places?
•      How have the variables of gender, class, race, and ethnicity intersected in our understanding of a particular historical movement or moment?36
•      How are students' perceptions of gender roles in world history socially constructed through classroom experience?
•      How are the changing perceptions of gender and gender issues related to our conception of world history?
•      How does the availability of sources affect our perceptions of gender and the writing of history?
    Using questions to reflect upon one's own knowledge and beliefs and to stimulate discussion about the issue of gender and women in world history is one example of what the scholarship on gender in recent years has accomplished. It "has forced dialogue (and heated argument) on every eternal verity of the field: on chronology, on periodization, on the hierarchy of events and issues we study, and on the critical actors in the history we are analyzing and reconstructing."37 For some secondary world history educators, the development of the Advanced Placement (AP) World History course illustrates this point quite well. The course guidelines for AP World History seem to have had an impact on the way in which gender and, particularly, the role of women in world history is being taught. In fact, these guidelines—which include the study of gender roles as a major theme throughout the course—probably have had more influence in teaching about women in history than either state or national standards because of the nature of the national exam. 20
    While the number of students enrolled in an Advanced Placement world history course is nowhere near the total number of students nation-wide who are enrolled in a general world history course,38 the traditional view of teaching about history that was "predicated on the assumption that the male experience [was] universal and represented all of humanity . . . including female experience," 39 has given way in some Advanced Placement world history classrooms to discussions, debates, and even revision of the traditional periodization and topic selection, in instructional strategies, and in the actual conceptual framework that many educators use in looking at human societies and their histories. From articles in journals and presentations at conferences, to conversations on the AP World History listserv, rethinking the roles of women and men in the context of world history has been part of numerous discussions about what actually constitutes world history. However, more needs to be done in broadening this base to include consideration of these ideas and approaches in other world history classes as well. 21
    Finally, why is the concept of gender equity important to the successful education of all of our students? One reason lies in the published research evidence that a gender-fair curriculum makes a positive difference in our students' knowledge, skills, and attitudes.40 For example, one study reported that, after reviewing more than 100 studies, "Pupils who are exposed to sex-equitable materials are more likely than others to . . . have gender-balanced knowledge of people in our society."41 Evidence from a Dutch study demonstrated that "after 40,000 secondary students [had] received instruction in women's history of the Netherlands and the United States . . . the young women scored higher on compulsory exams," just the reverse of previous years.42 And, a study from Wisconsin reported that after teaching women's studies in elementary school, not only did girls participate more in their social studies classes, but boys did as well.43 22
    In the end, if our classrooms are to be truly democratic in nature, then classroom materials, especially textbooks, must include the history of all humanity, both women and men, in an equitable fashion. They must demonstrate the concepts of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity for all students that, taken together, comprise our definition of gender equity. 23
Biographical Note: Linda Jones Black is a former AP World History educator and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Texas A & M University in College Station, Texas.  


1 Maxine Greene in Janice Koch and Beverly Irby, eds., Defining and Redefining Gender Equity in Education (Greenwich, Conn.: Information Age Publishing), Preface.

2 P. Baldwin and D. Baldwin, "The Portrayal of Women in Classroom Textbooks," Canadian Social Studies 26: 3 (1992), 110-114.

3 Michelle Commeyras and Donna E. Alvermann, "Reading about Women in World History Textbooks from One Feminist Perspective," Gender & Education 8 (March 1996), 31-48.

4 Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past, Placing Women in History (New York: Oxford, 1979), 79.

5 Women on Words & Images (Society), Dick and Jane as Victims: Sex Stereotyping in Chidren's Readers (Princeton: Women on Words & Images, 1975).

6 Jesus Garcia and Carol S. Woodrick, "The Treatment of White and Non-White Women in U.S. Textbooks," Clearinghouse 53 (September 1979): 17-22; Jan Jeffrey and Barb Craft, "Report of the Elementary School Textbooks Task Force," (Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Public Schools, 1973); Social Studies Textbook Review Committee, "1978-79 Michigan Social Studies Textbook Study," (Lansing: Michigan State Board of Education, 1979); Janice Trecker, "Women in U.S. History High-School Textbooks" in J. Pottker and A. Fishel, eds., Sex Bias in the Schools: The Research Evidence (New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1971).

7 Myra Sadker and David Sadker, Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994) 70-71.

8 The terms "add-on or contribution history" are used to describe this practice. Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault, "Rethinking Women, Gender, and the Social Studies," Social Education 51 (March 1987), 170-213; Judith P. Zinsser, History & Feminism, A Glass Half Full (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993).

9 Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, How Schools Shortchange Girls-The American Association of University Women Report: A Study of Major Findings on Girls and Education (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1992).

10Lynn Reese, "Gender Equity and Texts," Social Studies Review 33 (1994), 12-15.

11 Ibid.

12 American Association of University Women, Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail our Children (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1999), 68.

13 Michelle Commeyras and Donna E. Alvermann, "Reading about Women in World History Textbooks from One Feminist Perspective," Gender & Education 8 (March 1996), 31-48

14 Ibid., 11-13.

15 Ibid., 7.

16 Roger Clark, Kieran Ayton, Nicole Frechette, and Pamela J. Keller, "Women of the World Re-Write! Women in American World History High School Textbooks from the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s," Social Education 69 (January/February 2005). The authors attempted to locate texts that had been used in all three decades, but identified only one, Anatole G. Mazour and John M. Peoples, Men and Nations, A World History (later re-named People and Nations, A World History), Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

17 Ibid., 41.

18 Ibid., 42.

19 Janice Law Trecker, "Women in U.S. History High School Textbooks," Social Education 35 (1971), 249-260.

20 The authors identified four women authors/editors in the 1990s textbooks when there were actually five. Dahia Ibo Shabaka, listed on the McDougal Littell text, is not identified by the authors as a female author.

21 Arthur Boak, Preston Slosson, Howard Anderson, and Hall Bartlett, The History of Our World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin); Walter T. Wallbank and Arnold Schrier, Living World History (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company); Peter N. Stearns, Stuart B. Schwartz, and Barry Beyer, World History: Traditions and New Directions (Menlo Park, California: Addison-Wesley); Larry Krieger et al., World History Perspectives on the Past (D.C. Heath); Ross E. Dunn, Links Across Time and Places: A World History (McDougal Littell and Company); Burton F. Beers, World History: Patterns of Civilization (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall).

22 R. R. Palmer and Joel G. Colton, A History of the Modern World, (New York: Knopf, 1971, 1984).

23 Roger B. Beck, Linda Black, Larry S. Krieger, Phillip C. Naylor, and Dahia Ibo Shabaka,

World History: Patterns of Interaction (Evanston, Ill.: McDougal Littell, 2003); Elisabeth Gaynor Ellis and Anthony Esler, World History: Connections to Today, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2003); Mounir Farah and Andrea Karls, World History: The Human Experience, (New York: Glencoe/McGraw Hill, 2001); Sue Miller, ed., World History: People and Nations, (Austin, TX: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston, 2000); and Jackson S. Spielvogel, World History, (New York: Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 2003).

24 Sean Christopher Dudley Colbert-Lewis, "An Analysis of the Presentation of Women in Five High School World History Textbooks," PhD diss., (University of Virginia: UMI ProQuest, 2005), 85.

25 Ibid., 158.

26 Ibid., 142.

27 Ibid., 78.

28 Ibid., Appendix B.

29 Patricia B. Campbell and Jo Sanders, "Uninformed But Interested: Findings of a National Survey on Gender Equity in Pre-service Teacher Education," Journal of Teacher Education 48 (1997).

30 Peter H. Martorella, Candy Beal, and Cheryl Mason Bolick, Teaching Social Studies in Middle and Secondary Schools (New Jersey: Pearson, 2005); Walter C. Parker, Social Studies in Elementary Education (New Jersey: Pearson, 2005).

31 James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks, Teaching Strategies for the Social Studies: Decision-Making and Citizen Action (New York: Longman, 1999), 212.

32 Dorte Marie Sondergaard, "Making Sense of Gender, Age, Power and Disciplinary Position: Intersecting Discourses in the Academy," Feminism & Psychology 15:2 (2005), 192.

33 Mary Kay Tetreault, "Rethinking Women, Gender, and the Social Studies," Social Education 51 (March 1987), 170-178.

34 Ibid., 173.

35 Ibid., 173.

36 Carol Ruth Berkin, "Rethinking History," in Carol Ruth Berkin, Martha C. Howell, Altagracia Ortiz, Myra B. Young Armstead, and Judith Zinsser, History. CUNY Panel: Rethinking the Disciplines. Women in the Curriculum Series, (Towson University, Baltimore Maryland: National Center for Curriculum Transformation Resources on Women, 1997), 6.

37 Carol Ruth Berkin, "Rethinking History," in Carol Ruth Berkin, Martha C. Howell, Altagracia Ortiz, Myra B. Young Armstead, and Judith Zinsser, History. CUNY Panel: Rethinking the Disciplines. Women in the Curriculum Series, (Towson University, Baltimore Maryland: National Center for Curriculum Transformation Resources on Women, 1997),2.

38 64,207 students took the 2005 AP World History exam according to the AP Program Summary Report 2005. Estimates for the number of students nation-wide currently enrolled in a secondary world history course could not be located. However, 68.93% of all high school students completed a world history course in 2000 according to the U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, NAEP High School Transcript Study (HSTS), 2000, as quoted in Robert B. Bain, "NAEP 12th Grade World History Assessment: Issues and Options," Commissioned Paper for The National Assessment Governing Board, (University of Michigan: May 2004).

39 Mary Kay Tetreault, "Rethinking Women, Gender, and the Social Studies," Social Education 51 (March 1987), 170.

40 Jane S. Gaskell and John Willinsky, eds., Gender In/Forms Curriculum: From Enrichment to Transformation (New York: Teachers College Press, 1995).

41 Ibid., 199

42 Ibid., 199.

43 Ibid., 199.


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