July/August 2021 Issue
June 13, 2021

Herstory class opens minds, changes perspectives

Author: Kara Smith
Source: NYSUT United
herstory project
Caption: “Herstory! Rad Women who Shaped the World” is proving to be a popular elective with James Gang’s students at Hamburg High School. Photo provided.

Learning about women’s history empowers Abby. It shows Anastasia that women are important parts of building and progressing our society. And it inspires Safiyyah to want to teach others about women’s history.

All three are students at Hamburg High School near Buffalo. And all are part of James Gang’s high school elective class, Herstory! Rad Women who Shaped the World, which highlights noteworthy women whose names are seldom mentioned in male-dominated history books. The Hamburg Teachers Association member launched the class this year, after noticing that most history classes don’t teach about female trailblazers.

“I felt like curriculums were underserving women,” said Gang, a former instructor with the Academy for Human Rights, a weeklong summer program founded by Buffalo educators to teach about social justice issues. He’s also worked with the American Federation of Teachers on a human rights curriculum. As the father of a middle-school aged girl, he does his best to teach her about female historymakers. He wanted to extend the same learning opportunity to other students.

Turns out, he’d tapped an unmet need. “I was surprised by the interest, I got a full class load and lots of new faces,” said Gang, noting that his students come from a variety of backgrounds and genders.

After years of courses focused on the male perspective, examining history through a female lens was a welcome change — even for students who enrolled by chance. “I feel like it’s a relevant issue that needs to be addressed,” said Sidney, who registered to fill a schedule gap but recognizes the class’s importance. “I want to learn how these women were able to make such change in the face of adversity.”

To underscore the routine marginalization of women in traditional school curriculums, Gang assigned students to ask former teachers how many women they regularly include in their curriculum. The responses drove home how few classroom lessons feature women, despite women representing 51 percent of the population. “I also had them looking through old yearbooks and noticing when, and how many, females were student officers and school administrators,” said Gang. “Until about the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, girls were only ever class secretaries or treasurers.”

Women didn’t hold leadership positions in the district, or on the school board, until the 1990s. Students also mentioned the condescending tone, and sexist language used when

referring to female teachers decades ago, and that all female teachers were pigeonholed into certain jobs like typing teachers or secretaries.

“I think I’ve angered them a bit by opening their eyes to historical inequalities,” said Gang. “But I love that. I want them to have a reaction, whether positive or negative.”

Andrew is happy to get a more “fleshed out picture of history” than the one students typically receive in school. “You don’t hear many female names in history classes, but women have had just as much of an effect on the world as males.”

Ethan agrees. “I’m learning about women who’ve really changed the world,” he said. “And I’ve never heard their names.”

Celebrate and share Women’s History

During women’s history month, the NYSUT Women’s Committee and EVP Jolene DiBrango hosted a #NYSUTchat on Twitter to discuss the lack of women’s history in school curricula. The archive of “Making the Case for Women in History” is posted at nysut.org/ women. The page includes a variety of Women’s History resources.

Download free NYSUT-designed Women’s History Month posters at nysut.org/posters.

The National Park Service features a collection of resources on women’s history, including women in the labor movement, nps.gov/womenshistory.

For a collection of Women’s History lesson plans, visit the American Federation of Teachers’ Share My Lesson site, sharemylesson.com/womenshistory.