When I went to school, they tried to brainwash me with a patriarchal tunnel-vision education. Maybe it was just me, but at the time I wondered how it came about. My mother is an amazing person, my grandmothers were superhuman people, my godmother was a saint … and yet somehow females of influence ceased to exist outside my personal sphere. Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr, Newton, Darwin, Gandhi, Mandela, etc etc etc. Honestly, the only woman I ever learned about was Mother Teresa. I was taught that ‘behind every great man, there is a strong woman’. Key word: BEHIND. Key understanding: men can be great, women can be strong.
I’d be very surprised if there was any reference to women who have changed the world in any of the textbooks my teachers used – except for maybe a half-page summary, like an anomaly, in a small text-box that sits separate from the real learning. My mother (again, awesome human) taught me that omitting the truth was just another form of lying. My education had the female-half of the truth omitted. I was lied to. The light this shines on education systems and the impact this still has on learners of both genders is something we need to address immediately.
Take Cecilia Payne, for example. Newton discovered gravity, Darwin discovered evolution (where’s Wallace? I hear you ask), Einstein discovered relativity. Common knowledge. But who knows that Cecilia Payne discovered what the universe was made of? Minor details … not.
I was taught that Watson and Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. I remember teaching this … and how I shudder with embarrassment. What about Rosalind Franklin? Another forgotten female. Karen Sparck Jones, a pioneer of computer science: “Computing is too important to be left to men.” Martha Gellhorn made history as a war correspondent, but is probably best known for her brief marriage to Ernest Hemmingway.
The list goes on (and on and on). In fact, I could write whole books and design full learning programs just about the women who changed the world that nobody told me about.
From an integrity standpoint, education needs to right these omitted wrongs. We need to bring this gender inequity to the front of our curriculum; not just to correct the male/female ratio of awesome people (and provide a true sense of the greatness of the long list of women who have changed the world), but to speak into the issue of gender inequity and the detrimental impact it has on all of us. We need to openly discuss our collective shared history and look at the underlying reasons why women have been forgotten by history and left out of education programs. What did it do to the motivation of women, young and old, all around the world, knowing that they could not be great (they could only be strong) and they would always be ‘behind’ a man?
The gender lies scattered all through history make it even more amazing to think how any woman was able to make an impact in such a male dominated world. A ‘man with means’ could sneeze and we’d need to know his name to pass a multiple choice exam – a woman must overcome every possible obstacle and would only just now make a list of ‘forgotten women in history’. I wonder about all the other great women who didn’t even make the list of ‘forgotten women in history’.
Or do we wait for International Women’s Day and celebrate amazing women for just one day of the year? No. Schools educating about and for the real-world need to lose the gender bias and need to dive into the issues behind that bias – or do we keep our students in the dark about the amazing feats of women through history? Do we keep lying?