To celebrate Women’s History Month this past March, I listened to some podcasts on ecofeminism and kept up with the New-York Historical Society’s Instagram page, which I have found to be a space for public education. I also spent time working as a teacher educator with pre-service social studies teachers, discussing the explicit, implicit and null curriculum within social studies education in the state of Georgia.
An important component of teaching is understanding that students are learning many curriculums in our classrooms. For instance, the explicit curriculum is the published or presented curriculum, such as a lesson on McCarthyism and blacklisting. The implicit curriculum is the unstated or hidden curriculum of the culture of a given teacher, classroom or school (i.e. expecting and assuming students to say “Yes, ma’am” or “No, sir” without telling them to do so). The null curriculum is the curriculum that is not taught; it is left out (i.e. sexual education on the importance of consent).
In preparation for another meeting with my teacher candidates to discuss this curriculum, I decided to re-read the “Social Studies Georgia Standards of Excellence,” looking for any information on a few of the many women who contribute to the fabric of our nation. I honestly wasn’t taking the task very seriously at first, yet as I skimmed through the lists of standards, I began to persistently notice that women were not mentioned.
I became panicked and confused, as I remember at least teaching Sacagawea, Harriet Tubman, the Grimke Sisters, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ruby Bridges, Rosa Parks, Jane Addams, Ida Tarbell and Delores Huerta to my high school students (which I admit is already a very slim list). I continued skimming and finally noticed Eleanor Roosevelt, a first lady. At this point, there were only a couple standards left. I read through them — not a woman in sight.
One white woman.
One white woman, only mentioned because of her relationship to her husband.
I couldn’t believe it. Seriously. So, I went back to the beginning of the document, grabbed a pencil and a sticky note and started reading it again, determined to tally each time I saw a woman by name. Second round, and Eleanor was the only woman sittin’ pretty. I then decided to go back to the beginning and tally the number of men, individually named, in the Georgia Department of Education’s U.S. History Standards, which is the foundation of the curriculum for the course. I tallied 48 individually named men, and 17 of those men were included twice or more.
I did notice that some of the standards listed “women” alongside other historically marginalized people. However, these mentions read as flippant. Standard 4, substandard E states, “Examine the roles of women, American Indians, and enslaved and free Blacks in supporting the war effort.” In Standard 4, Exhibit A, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Washington, von Steuben and LaFayette are all mentioned by name. Moreover, their identities, white and men don’t warrant a mention. They are the norm. “Women, American Indians, and enslaved and free Blacks” are not the norm in the curriculum.
Most ironic about analyzing Georgia’s social studies standards? I taught this course a few years ago. I was a high school social studies teacher in northern Georgia. But I didn’t remember it was so inadequate. I know I had subconsciously added a few women into the curriculum, filling in the cracks. Or maybe, like some people, I was so conditioned to accept that women are not worthy of recognition, I was oblivious to their absence in the curriculum and didn’t fill in the cracks as much as I thought.
We talk about inviting people to the table in popular discourse and in education, even extending the table to folx that have been left out of the conversation. In this instance, the Georgia Department of Education decided to put marginalized groups at a different table, where they are not worthy of identification. Where is Sojourner Truth, Yuri Kochiyama, Pauli Murray, Joan Baez and so many others who fundamentally changed the landscape of our country? These were folx I didn’t learn about until I went searching.
And how are teachers expected to fix an issue that far predates their classroom? Though there are many educators doing this work, under constrained conditions, it is unfair to expect social studies teachers to simply add diverse historical perspectives to the curriculum when teachers are already expected to sprint through the standards as is.
Where are the Women?
Men are disproportionately overrepresented, and women are disproportionately underrepresented in the curriculum of a mandated course for graduation in high school in the state of Georgia. This is not an accident. The curriculum is contested ground.
During my student teaching experience, I helped my mentor teacher revise the standards, as many social studies stakeholders were recruited to do by the Georgia Department of Education. I half-remembered that there was controversy. Some politicians felt the revisions were unpatriotic, as it offered a slightly more inclusive curriculum, including more folx who have contributed to the creation and duration of our country.
For instance, Atlanta Journal Constitution’s Maureen Downey reported Senator William Ligon, R-Brunswick, wrote in a letter objecting to the revisions, “...we should recognize that the dominate features of our culture are no longer anchored in Native American cultures, but in the Anglo-American traditions of Western Civilization, and therefore, the historical focus should major on the majors, not major in the minor themes of displaced cultures.” In other words, Bill doesn’t think students should learn about how indigenous peoples contributed, and continue to contribute, to our nation. Likewise, women are purposefully left out. Careful, Bill, your null curriculum is showing.
I taught with the old standards and then implemented the new ones in 2017. At the time, I was unaware of the difference between the two curricula. There is actually less representation of women in the newest standards. The new standards perpetuate the erasure of women.
The standards had more authority than I did. It was handed to me, and I was expected to teach it so that students would do well on the United States End of Course Test (EOCT), which helps determine the College and Career Ready Performance Index (CCRPI), which determines funding allocation. Worse scores? Less funding. Conform to the discourse and structure, and your school will be rewarded.
Furthermore, the students’ individual scores impacted their overall grades. There is no incentive to teach about women’s history, Black history or LGBT+ history. But there is incentive to teach about men, particularly white men. Again, the standards as well as CCRPI, funding and grading systems precede teachers.
When we only recognize men, mostly white men, as contributors to our nation’s history, we are sending a message to our students. Women become the null curriculum. We are committing curriculum violence. By teaching and learning this curriculum, we reinforce silence toward women’s stories, values and contributions — much like those of indigenous, Black, Asian American, transgender folx and the list goes on. With the current backlash against the 1619 Project, we know anti-Blackness, white supremacy and misogyny continue to plague our nation and social studies classrooms.
Moving forward, I am contacting the state board of education, my representatives and the Georgia Professional Standards Commission (GaPSC) to inquire why they do not have a more inclusive and accurate curriculum. Inclusivity is not about coddling. And it’s not about being politically correct. It's about validating, legitimizing and recognizing the role and labor of the women — and other groups who’ve witnessed their lived experiences whitewashed in classrooms — who made this country and its history possible. It's about showing students that difference is a strength and not a pejorative.
I’ve realized the many ways in which 2016 was regressive in terms of accurate and affirming education. Today, in 2021, scholars, educators, students, parents and politicians must create and teach a curriculum that encompasses the voices and truths of women and all of the folx marginalized by our country and our history.