Take, for example, a controversial piece of history that relates directly to the current political debates: women’s control over reproduction. Birth control, if taught at all in our schools, is usually segregated in health classes. But women’s control over childbearing has actually been a key issue in U.S. history. As the women’s rights movement grew before the Civil War, white middle-class women became interested in controlling how many children they had in order to be able to extend their experiences beyond the home. For black and Native American women, control of their bodies meant primarily the ability to make choices about fertility that weren’t dominated by rape and the inability to keep their children safe and free. In the early 20th century, when Margaret Sanger first started handing out birth control—a crime for which she was repeatedly arrested—she saw it as part of a larger fight for the emancipation of the poor. But, only a few years later, influenced by the eugenics movement that fueled Jim Crow at home and imperial designs abroad, she was defining the “chief issue of birth control” as “more children from the fit, less from the unfit.” A generation later, many activists fighting for the legalization of abortion ignored the sterilization of black women in the South, Native American women on reservations, and colonized women in Puerto Rico.
What a rich, complex historical vein—all the contradictions around gender, class, and race that lie at the heart of supporting students to think critically about history and social justice strategies. When we open up history in this way, we encompass gender issues, homophobia, and LGBTQ history. Many aspects of current society that don’t show up in the standard curriculum—mass incarceration, poverty and the welfare system, the impact of militarization at home and abroad—are arenas where an exploration from a more feminist perspective can connect to students’ lives and expose them to a more expansive view of what history is and why it matters.
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