I’ve always been a sucker for the follow-ups and epilogues to reality shows. “This person won a million-dollar deal (or found the love of their life, etc.) on X show two years ago: Let’s see how they’re doing now!” If the source produces it, you know it will be successful or at least inspirational. If an outside source makes it, it’s anyone’s guess if you’ll see a happily ever after or a messier, perhaps more titillating story.
I feel the same curiosity during these months dedicated to the less-told histories of our world. There’s always a swell of stories about people overcoming imbalanced power structures to become the first to accomplish something.
Whether intentional or not, the implication is that the particular barrier was broken forever and was never re-erected. There are rarely enough follow-ups to verify or disprove it.
I noticed this implication when my two children started coming home from school with their crayon-festooned portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Justice Ginsburg, and other trailblazers. They had learned about a problem and a famous person who endeavored to solve it and believed the problem to be nonexistent “in the today times,” as my daughter once said. As we all are often painfully aware, it’s rarely that simple.
That’s why this March, as we collectively dive into women’s history month topics, is an excellent opportunity to create more episodes of “Where are they now?” But maybe instead of “they,” we need to ask, “Where are we now?”
One way to do so is to adopt women’s history month activities that hold the present accountable. Connecting the dots from history to 2021 and beyond has the power to engage students with the topic in ways they weren’t anticipating.
For example, if Sally Ride was the first woman in space, what did the NASA astronaut roster look like 5 and 10 years after her accomplishment? Ask students to research what that industry and landscape look like today.
Do the programs that educate future astronauts and physicists have more female students and teachers today than they did when Ride worked her way into space? What barriers are still in place, and why?
Finding ways to recognize and celebrate women’s history month that incorporate a “follow up” to the traditional historical-figure lesson can stimulate students’ own ideas of what women’s history month is for.
Doing this can encourage students to critically examine their present experiences and compare them with the historical contexts. Allow them to ask: “If there was a ‘first,’ has there been a second? Would my classmates or I face the same barrier(s) this person faced?”
You can also point them to other cultures around the world to explore the different paces at which structures and opportunities have changed. Learning, for example, that there are still more than 400 million women worldwide who can’t read because they don’t have access to education can be a powerful way for students to understand lived realities beyond historical lessons.
Take a look at some of the many women’s history month event ideas, activities, and games, and challenge yourself and your students to do some follow-up. Let’s look back to look forward.