Nash on Why Women’s History Matters
In this article, Margaret A. Nash, editor of Women’s Higher Education in the United States, discusses the importance of equal gender representation, both in contemporary society and in history.
“I never knew that someone like me could do that.” Young adults, especially those of color, often make such statements, as do youth from other marginalized groups, who might have aspired to being doctors or inventors or writers but who never saw images of people who look like them accomplishing those goals.
Kids need to see role models who look like them. A study of sixth and seventh graders found that students who had gender- and race-matched role models did better in school. They also set higher goals for themselves1 because these role models “provide concrete information to young people regarding what is possible for them as members of specific social groups.”2
Media representations shape how we think. Our knowledge of ourselves and others is based on what we see, hear, experience, and are taught. As sociologist Dana Mastro writes, texts and images become “part of the ongoing process of defining, validating, and creating shared group norms and stereotypes.”3 Unfortunately, the texts and images of women that predominate are severely limited. In films from 2011-2015, women comprise less than a third of lead characters; women were three times as likely as men to be scantily clad or partially nude; and in 800 films from 2007-2015, female speaking characters hovered around 30 percent of characters.4 Representation of women is no better in school textbooks. One analysis of world history textbooks used in U.S. schools found that 8 women are named for every 100 men.5
This is one reason why women’s history matters: Girls need to see themselves represented as actors in the world, doing important things – as scientists, inventors, scholars, explorers, poets, and activists. They need to know that women have accomplished good and great things. When history books leave women out, they lead girls to think that they are not capable of accomplishing much. Girls also need to know that their lives matter, including the average, ordinary, struggling lives that most of us lead. When history focuses only on military or world leaders, it can seem like the lives of other heroes – and heroines – including writers, artists, teachers, social workers, and community activists, are not important. Boys need to see these things, as well, as they need to learn to share the world stage with girls.
My research focuses on the history of women’s lives, particularly on how women have (and have not) been educated. Too few histories of education say much about the education of any women – and even less about the education of women of color or other marginalized groups. Yet generations of women have been active in their pursuit of education, and we need to hear their stories so that young people today know assuredly that “someone like me” can achieve great things. My book, Higher Education for Women in the United States, is filled with stories of women who, like the formerly enslaved Anna Julia Cooper, yearn for “the chance of the seedling” to grow and thrive.
1. Francie Diep, “Research Shows Why Misty Copeland is so Important,” Pacific Standard, July 1, 2015, downloaded March 12, 2018 from https://psmag.com/social-justice/race-and-gender-matched-role-models
2. Zirkel, Sabrina. "Is there a place for me? Role models and academic identity among white students and students of color." Teachers College Record 104.2 (2002): 357-376.
3. Dana Mastro, “Why the Media’s Role in Issues of Race and Ethnicity Should be in the Spotlight,” Journal of Social Issues 71 (1) (March 2015), 5.
4. Women’s Media Center, The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2017.
5. Roger Clark, Kieran Ayton, Nicole Frechette, Pamela J. Keller, “Women of the World, Re-write!,” retrieved from
Margaret A. Nash is Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, USA, and the author of Higher Education for Women in the United States, 1780-1840, which won a Critics Choice award from the American Educational Studies Association. She has appeared on CNN for Women’s History Month, and has published in History of Education Quarterly and other journals.