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Celebrating Women Who Shaped History

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Women who lobbied for the right to get an education, work, own property, vote, and be recognized are described through primary resources and original writings in 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women's History. The book is aimed at educating middle and high school students about women's roles in American history. Included: Lessons and activities using material in the book.

Tonya Bolden is the editor of 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women's History: From Suffragettes to Skirt Lengths to the E.R.A. The book, for middle and high school students, highlights key people and events in women's history in the United States. Bolden, the author of several books for teenagers and adults, also edited 33 Things Every Girl Should Know.

Education World: Why did you think this type of book was needed?

Tonya Bolden: The book arose out of the recognition that relatively few junior high schools and high schools offer a women's history course. This anthology was created to stand in the gap; it says that people don't have to wait until they get to college to begin to explore in an organized way what it has meant to be female in America.

EW: How did you decide on the 33 topics?

Bolden: To a certain extent, the topics decided themselves. Not a lot of thinking was required, for example, to know there should be something in the book on the Declaration of Sentiments and the First Women's Rights Convention, on the battle for the vote, and on what feminism is and is not.

At the same time I didn't want to be too rigid, formatted, or dictatorial. Some ideas came into focus through conversations with people invited to contribute. Sometimes I approached a writer with a general idea; other times, I approached a writer whose style, energy, and spirit I knew would be good for the book and I asked her what topic she'd most like to tackle.

Ann Decker had contributed a fabulous comix [a type of graphic storytelling that's different from a cartoon or a comic strip] to 33 Things Every Girl Should Know. I knew I wanted to work with her again. We talked, kicked around ideas, and eventually she settled on a graphic piece that would highlight women's contributions to major movements other than the women's movement.

Plus, there were pleasant surprises! I asked Judy Simmons to write an essay on language vis-a-vis women's oppression and liberation, and she agreed -- then the Muse struck! Judy produced a textured, transfixing poem ("The Herstory of Language") that is actually a much more fitting genre for a discussion of language.

I also thought it was important not to limit the topics to what might be labeled academic; to open it up to include topics about popular culture as well. Hence, Ann Powers's piece on girl groups, among others.

All in all, I think topics were pretty easy to come up with. The tricky part was how to approach the topic, how to hit upon the right piece. In this, I had help. My editor, Nancy Hinkel, directed me to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." (She had read it in college; I had not.) I was not aware of the diaries of M. Carey Thomas until history professor Paula Treckel (The Facets of Feminism), one of the book's contributors, took the time to brainstorm for a historical piece of writing that dealt with the issue of girls and education in "days of yore."

EW: How do you think teachers can use this book in the classroom?

Bolden: This book can be used in the classroom in many ways. Along with reading aloud and responsive writings, students might stage "The ERA That's Yet to Come," Roberta Francis's one-act play about the equal rights amendment. Or they might create their own drama around the crew of women's rights activists in Fran Ellers's "The Roll Call of Crusaders." Students can use "The Landmarks of Our Lives," Marsha Weinstein's piece about historic sites, as a springboard for their own list of sites -- and for some armchair traveling.

Students can do something similar with Kathleen Odean's roundup of books ("You Can Read All About It!"). They can research other books about the experiences of girls and women in America; they can read the books on Odean's list and present oral reports so everyone can learn from everyone else.

Sue Macy's piece, "Who Was First and Why It Matters," can serve as a starting point for research on women who were "first" in business, sports, medicine, and a host of other fields. The book offers opportunities for debates on such topics such as "voting: an option or a duty?" "coed vs. single-sex education," "concepts of beauty," and "Suzy Homemaker vs. Carla Career."

The book also may inspire oral history projects. Have students interview women they know who have overcome and/or achieved, and then have them transform the data into visual or literary "profiles in courage."

EW: What lesson(s) do you most want girls to get from the book?

Bolden: Perhaps the number one lesson I want girls to get from the book is a firm understanding that the women who came before them had to fight for the rights and freedoms they now possess -- and may, in fact, take for granted -- such as the opportunity to go to college and the right to vote. I also want readers to see how empowering knowledge of the past, of history, can be. I hope the book inspires them to keep learning more and more and more about from whence they came. Too, there's a luta continua (the struggle continues)! It's true that we've seen a great deal of progress on the status of women in America, but absolute equal opportunity (such as pay equity, for example) has not yet been achieved. I'd love it if readers of the book (teens and adults, female and male) would commit to making a contribution (at least in some small way) to the campaign for gender equality.

EW: What women have inspired you?

Bolden: My mother, who died in 1989, grew up relatively poor in Jim Crow South Carolina. She never went beyond sixth grade and did domestic work for much of her youth. She didn't let that stop her, though; she basically educated herself through voracious reading. At one point, long after having taught herself to sew, she took a course in couture dressmaking (she'd already taken a millinery course). Coming from a family of cooks, she also had a passion for good food -- both haute and peasant cuisine. She dabbled in catering for a while, drawing on all she had learned from her foremothers (and forefathers), from Julia Child, the Galloping Gourmet, and other television cooking show hosts, and from the cookbooks she collected. The point is, my mother pushed against the restrictions of race and gender she had to contend with because of when and where she was born. Clearly, she embraced her innate creativity. She was also bound and determined (along with my father) that my sister and I would get an excellent education.

More than anyone else, my mother instilled in me the idea that the world is my oyster. I remember vividly her showing me as kid what a fish fork is. Her reasoning: "You never know, you might be invited to the White House one day." She wasn't so much telling me to covet an invitation to the White House, as telling me I should expect great things, that I should walk the world with the attitude of possibilities -- and prepare for those possibilities.

Ida B. Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt. Those are among the hundreds of other women who inspire me -- women who lived not for themselves alone. I am also inspired by friends and colleagues who really commit to raising their children well. I'm inspired by Susan Hess, media specialist at I.S. 71 in Brooklyn, New York, and a host of the other librarians and teachers I've met over the years who are totally dedicated to educating the young -- and who do it well. To that list, I add the women who contributed to this anthology, and my editor. Their intellects and curiosity, and their cherishing of women's history is very inspiring.


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