Balancing the books. Image: REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
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History is written by the victors. It’s also written largely by men.
In 2015, a study of 614 popular history books that were published in the United States found that more than three-quarters (76%) had male authors, with the gender gap only slightly smaller (70%) among the titles that made the New York Times bestseller list.
Not only that, but the main players written about in history books tend to be men. The same study found that 72% of the subjects of historical biographies were male - with the list dominated by the usual suspects: Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
School history books
Now consider how that gender bias plays out in schools, where there are “significantly more males than females in text content and illustrations”, according to a 2016 analysis of American high school history textbooks.
The study’s authors Kay A. Chick and Stacey Corle wrote: “Women have and still do make up 50% [of] Americans, but are represented in only a small fraction of the historical record… As long as textbook publishers focus on military and political history over social history, men will be highlighted in American history textbooks and the number of women portrayed will not see significant change.”
It’s a view shared by Beth Olanoff, the director of the Education Initiative at Vision 2020, a national coalition of organizations and individuals united in the commitment to achieve women’s economic and social equality.
She says women are portrayed as bystanders to history, with fewer than 11% of textbook references devoted to women: “This incomplete and inaccurate view of American history is misleading and harmful to both girls and boys.”
It’s currently going to take 108 years to reach gender parity globally, according to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap report, and a misrepresentation of women’s roles in national and world history will not help to close the gap.
A novel solution
To set the historical record straight for Women’s History Month, commemorated in March, a new app uses augmented reality to “add” the missing women into school textbooks in California.
Lessons In Herstory allows students to scan over any portrait of a man in the book A History of US, Book 5: Liberty For All? 1820–1860 to unlock a related story about a forgotten woman in history.
When a user scans President Zachary Taylor, for example, they see an illustration and story of Cathay Williams, an African American woman who enlisted to fight in the Civil War, using a disguise and a pseudonym.
The app was made by Daughters of the Evolution, an organization to help young women create the world they want to live in, co-founded by a San Francisco-based advertising agency.
It currently features a diverse selection of 75 women from the 19th century, including Harriet Tubman and Gertrude Stein, who were chosen by author and feminist historian Kate Schatz.
She says: “There is a saying, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, and apps like this absolutely have the power to shift culture. In terms of the impact it can have on student learning, it lets you make a discovery, it lets you access information when you want it.”
The app follows the success in the UK of Goodnight Stories For Rebel Girls, which was published in 2017 after authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo raised $1 million via Kickstarter. It became a publishing phenomenon and started a trend for non-fiction, feminist books for children, rewriting “herstory” for a new generation.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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