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Gender in World History Textbooks

Sharon Cohen
Springbrook High School

    World history teachers can easily teach about gender issues using the four college world history textbooks that currently dominate the market.1 These books include analysis of gender status and gender roles in the textual narrative, in the special boxes of primary and secondary sources, and in the voluminous visuals prominent in all of the texts. In general, the latest editions of world history textbooks can aid world history teachers in explicitly addressing both the changing status of women in many different societies over time, and the roles that men and women played in those same societies. That said, however, a few simple refinements to the current texts would enhance even further their usability for teaching about gender.
    What is most exciting about using these textbooks to teach about gender status and gender roles is that students will become more familiar with key vocabulary words associated with gender analysis. For example, all four textbooks regularly use words such as patriarchy in explaining the origins of inequality in gender status. Indeed, each of the texts explain the origins of patriarchy as a response to the shift from gathering and hunting to sedentary agriculture. They also each trace the effects of developing belief systems such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam on patriarchal societies.
     Although a majority of the space that directly addresses gender issues (ie. in special sections labeled "Class and Gender," "Society and Culture," "Economy and Society," "Family and Society," and "Social Change") are in fact primarily about women and women's roles, there are also a few attempts to discuss gender in terms of men. For example, the Stearns book discusses "Symbols of African Kingship" (458) and the "Era of Warrior Dominance" (293) in Japan, both of which deal with ideologies about masculinity. Bulliet also deals with the "Persian Idea of Kingship" (100), and Spodek analyzes the ideals of being a Confucian gentleman (208). Finally, both Bentley and Stearns include special attention to a primary source that outlines the correct behavior for Mexican boys as well as girls in the early post-Conquest period (Bentley 545, Stearns 248-249).
    In the era of Atlantic Revolutions, all of the texts devote attention to the increasing calls for women's political and economic rights„especially to the radical views of Mary Wollstonecraft's and/or Olympe de Gouges. In the modern period, all four books give some attention to women working in textile factories during the Industrial Revolution (both in Europe and sometimes in Japan), and they all call attention to women's expanded roles in the industrialized economies during the two World Wars. While Spodek deals most directly with gendered European attitudes towards colonized peoples in the late nineteenth century, all four texts devote some attention to the expansion of employment opportunities for women in Communist Russia and China. Moreover, each text covers the (mostly successful) struggle for women's political rights in the twentieth century. 4
    The most common place where gender status is addressed shows up in the visuals in all of the textbooks. All four books have at least a dozen images with captions that direct students to consider gender issues. The captions range from pointing out the distinctions that religions made regarding gender roles, to recognizing the economic contributions that women made in textile production, or to appreciating the leisure activities available to elite women. For example, the Bulliet book has an image of Tang elite women playing polo (250), and of Muslim women playing chess in Andalusia (211). A student learning world history from these textbooks would become habituated to reading about gender issues in the text and in the captions of visuals. Of course, if every relevant image included a caption that indicated some recognition of gender issues, then students could have even more opportunities to work on expanding their knowledge of gender status and gender roles. 5
    Indeed, although these latest editions deal with many gender issues, they all could also improve their approach without much effort. Currently, the spaces in which most of the texts deal directly with changes in gender status or gender roles remain limited to special boxes which are separated from the main text. In addition, most topics devoted to the topic of gender are, in reality, only about women rather than about both women and men. If, instead, all of the texts consistently included a section called "Gender and Society" for each region being discussed„a section that included ideologies about both men and women„then teachers and students might more easily, and more naturally, trace gender-related shifts and changes for every society included in the text. While gender issues remain segregated to special boxes, it is still possible for some students to conclude that gender is somehow separate from the 'regular' history dealt with in the main narrative. Moreover, the unevenness in the way gender issues are treated in the current texts could lead the unguided student to conclude that some societies did not have gender distinctions. For example, the narratives in all of the texts rarely address gender issues in societies in Africa, the Americas, and Southeast Asia. Thus, world history teachers using these texts will have to supplement with lectures or additional readings in order to help students see how gender status and gender roles developed in these regions.
    A more superficial issue, though perhaps not an unimportant one, is that in the current texts the few primary sources written by women frequently do not include their names in the table of contents, or even in the title of the source where they appear. For example, in Spodek neither Sally Slocum (26), Ban Zhao (216), or Judith Tucker (352) are explicitly recognized as authors of their own texts, and Gladys Acosta (854) suffers the same fate in Bulliet.
    Thus, even though all of the major AP and university-level world history texts deal with gender and gender issues, even a small amount of editorial work would allow students to more easily compare gender systems in different societies, and to begin to see global patterns in the effects of belief systems, industrialization, and movements for equal political rights on both men and women.
Biographical Note: Sharon Cohen teaches AP world history at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland.  


1 Jerry Bentley and Herb Ziegler, —Traditions and Encounters, A Global Perspective on the Past, 3rd ed. (Boston: McGrawHill, 2006); Richard Bulliet, Pamela Kyle Crossley, Daniel R. Headrick, Steven W. Hirsch, Lyman L. Johnson, and David Northrup, The Earth and Its Peoples, 3rd ed. (New York: Hougton Mifflin Company, 2005); Howard Spodek, The World's History, 3rd ed. (New York: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006); Peter Stearns, Michael Adas, Stuart B. Schwartz, and Marc J. Gilbert, World Civilizations, The Global Experience, 5th ed. (New York: Pearson, Longman, 2005).


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