“Each time a girl opens a book and finds a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.”
This quote by Dr. Myra Pollack Sadker, a pioneer in the research of gender bias in America’s schools, gets a lot of attention each year during Women’s History Month. Perhaps more than ever, it resonates with educators of girls reflecting on this year’s theme, “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives.”
We believe—and studies confirm—Girls Must See It To Be It. Seeing the women who came before them, made tough decisions, and pursued non-traditional roles will absolutely and positively influence their own paths in life. Throughout history, girls and women have been denied educations, occupations, and political roles. Despite the many obstacles, countless women broke through barriers to pursue their dreams and better not only their lives, but the lives of generations to come. Their stories are an inspiration today.
At girls’ schools, however, students see those stories throughout the school year, not just during a single month. We infuse women’s history into the curricula and various aspects of school life to help embolden our girls to achieve their full potential in whichever field they’re drawn to. How is the next generation of female leaders, however, going to “see it to be it” if there’s no evidence beyond the classrooms and campus walls of girls’ schools?
Women in America continue to be underrepresented in many areas from politics to finance to the boardroom and more. There’s perhaps no field clamoring more to close the gender gap though than the STEM industries—industries where the lack of female role models is widely reported to be part of the problem. Girls’ schools are successfully graduating young women who are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology and three times more likely to consider engineering careers compared to girls who attend coed schools. Yet, this is not enough. We need girls graduating from coed schools to feel equally empowered to help shift the paradigm.
We teach girls about heroines like Amelia Earhart, but what about her contemporary E. Lillian Todd who was the first-ever woman airplane designer? Marie Curie is known worldwide as a scientific research pioneer, but how many know of Gladys Hobby who was part of the research team that determined penicillin could be used to help humans? Or that legendary actress, Hedy Lamarr, co-invented the technology that enables our use of cell phones and WiFi today?
Too often, women’s contributions and accomplishments have been overlooked and consequently omitted from mainstream culture.
While women account for 51% of our population, a review of mainstream American history begs the question, where were the women? Women account for only 10% of historical figures in our history textbooks. When girls don’t see themselves in textbooks they learn that to be female is to be invisible. Is it really any wonder that so many women are trying to learn how to “lean in?” If we had grown up knowing about the remarkable women who contributed so much to building this nation, we’d already BE in!
When girls learn about accomplished women in history they become more aware of the possibilities in their own lives. It’s as important for boys to see accomplished women in history so they are aware women were also integral in shaping our nation.
Clearly, teaching our youth about women’s history, showing them examples of high achieving women, and encouraging them to pursue their dreams regardless of gender is critical.
Education about the accomplishments and contributions made by women will enable both girls and boys to see that gender is not a factor in deciding what you can and can’t pursue in life.
To that end, the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools (NCGS) supports the mission of the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM) to educate, inspire, empower, and shape the future by integrating women’s distinctive history into the national narrative. One of the primary objectives of NWHM is to build a world-class national women’s history museum at the National Mall, which will serve to educate all Americans about the critical and indispensable role women have played in our history. A privately funded Congressional Commission is currently being assembled to study and report to Congress on the governance, organizational structure, fundraising, operations, and locations of the Museum. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, our organizations look forward to the day when all Americans will know and understand the enormous influence women have had in shaping this great nation.
Megan Murphy, Executive Director, National Coalition of Girls’ Schools
Joan Wages, President & CEO, National Women’s History Museum