Over 200 years ago, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, asking him to “remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors….” Since Abigail’s time, the question of “remembering the ladies” in the canon is one that has been argued persuasively by a number of scholars in a variety of contexts. (Tune in next time if you want to skip my re-cap here and jump to my consideration of how Steiner’s teachings are relevant to the issue.)
To me, it seems like most arguments can be grouped into several broad categories:
1) Girls are damaged by the lack of positive role models in traditional curricula, which have tended to either portray women as passive and dependent on men (or at best, an inspiration to them–for instance, Beatrice to Dante, or Pocahontas to John Smith), to limit their inclusion to a few token major historical figures such as Sappho, Queen Elizabeth I, etc.), or even to ignore them altogether. This latter attitude of benign neglect is especially prevalent in political histories, which by their very nature, focus narrowly on one area of human interaction from which women have, for the most part, been excluded. The lack of women in traditional literature and history curricula, so the argument goes, makes girls feel “invisible” and therefore, holds them back in their own self-development. (Which, in turn, reinforces the overall aims and social structures of our patriarchal culture.)
The second argument is a positive corollary to the negative one outlined above:
2) Girls need to be inspired by powerful female characters and historical figures to whom they can relate, and on whom they can model their behavior. Some also argue that boys benefit from exposure to inspirational and/or powerful female characters, since it fosters an attitude that women as well as men are worthy of respect and emulation. This argument moves beyond tokenism (the inclusion of a few notable women as a “sidebar” to the main lesson) when the curriculum includes a broad spectrum of women as a matter of course, aiming at making “visible” the lives of women in general. This can be achieved, for instance, by discussing the economic role that women’s (often unpaid) labor plays in various cultures, by consciously examining the roles and expectations placed on women across different cultures and times, or even by something as simple as saying, “we don’t know much about the lives of women in pre-Vedic India, but the evidence we do have suggests….” Both types of inclusion (heroic female characters and broad-based looks at the roles of women in a given time, culture, or text) are necessary for fostering healthy self-development in girls and boys. Put simply, we need both to be inspired by the heroic actions of the few, and to know that the humble lives of the many are valued.
The third argument is perhaps the simplest:
3) Women HAVE been active contributors to the social, economic, and political arena since the beginnings of time, so representing them is simply a matter of accurate, thorough scholarship. In this view, introducing women and women’s accomplishments into our curricula is simply a corrective to what has historically been a sometimes unconscious, sometimes willful “blindness” on the part of (mostly male) scholars. For example, an accurate understanding of ancient Egyptian society must try to recreate (to the best of our ability) the lives of half its population, as well as the contributions of individual women, ranging from the great female pharaohs on down to the women named in specific court documents and papyri. The fact that reconstructing the lives and perceptions of women is often a difficult challenge does not excuse us from the attempt to do so. And advances in historiography, which has come to include a greater reliance on evidence like court records and archaeological excavations, rather than purely textual and/or political data, have often made it possible to construct at least a broad picture of what women’s lives entailed (as in the case of ancient Egypt, for instance), even if we are left with relatively few “personalities” that emerge from the somewhat impressionistic canvas.
There are, of course, many more subtleties to the argument in favor of including women in the canon, but to my mind, they all fall broadly under one of the three arguments presented above. And of course, Waldorf educators, like any others, should be mindful of these very persuasive arguments in favor of inclusion when considering how to structure our lessons. However, there are even further reasons we should make efforts to be inclusive–reasons based on the philosophy of Rudoph Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education. And it is to a consideration of Steiner’s “take” on women and gender that we will turn in the next post.
In the meantime, the following site contains a good recap of the evidence from mainstream educational sources in favor of inclusion. (And it’s also, as you’ll see, the source for my own title to this post, “Remembering the Ladies.”) http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-9215/ladies.htm
And here’s a link to a nice, concise response to the question of whether or not “women’s history” is really a valid endeavor: http://www.womeninworldhistory.com/current.html#Anchor-Women’s-49575