Picturing Women: Gender, Images, and Representation in Social Studies

By Woyshner, Christine | Social Education, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Picturing Women: Gender, Images, and Representation in Social Studies


Woyshner, Christine, Social Education


More than two decades ago, a well-known study pointed out that despite the marked increase in images of women in secondary history textbooks, the narrative emphasis on political, diplomatic, and military history had not changed.' While this study raised awareness of gender balance in the social studies curriculum, little attention has been paid to how women are represented, as opposed to how many are represented. Few, if any, articles on gender in the social studies curriculum have focused on teaching students to critically examine images of women and girls in textbooks, primary sources, and other resources. Young people are bombarded with media images at every turn; therefore, it is important to teach them to consider how women and girls are visually represented.

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This article raises questions about gender identity, and how it has been culturally constructed in images, artifacts, and photographs. Social studies students should be literate in images as well as text-based resources. (21) suggest ways that social studies teachers can help their students look closely at images of women and girls and think about who is represented, how they are represented, and who is left out. Once they learn some of the techniques of visual literacy, students may explore the following questions: What roles have images played in defining women's places in society? How is gender socially constructed, in part through visual representations of women and girls? How does race come into play through these images? What impact and role do these images play in social and civic education? How do images shape students' understanding of women in history?

The activities outlined in this article emphasize three of the National Council for the Social Studies' Ten Thematic Strands: (I) Culture; (II) Time, Continuity, and Change; and (IV) Individual Development and Identity.

Picturing Women

I use a series of images on women's mid-nineteenth century dress reform efforts to both illustrate the importance of questioning images of women in textbooks, primary source materials, museums, and public art, and to demonstrate three approaches that will help teachers in this endeavor: (1) close-looking, (2) juxtapositions, and (3) switching places.

The mid-nineteenth century was a time of great change on the American political and social landscape, particularly for white, middle-class women. In the decades prior to the 1890s surge of women's activism, black and white women engaged in work that sought to aid the poor, support their ongoing education in literary circles, and engage in reform measures. (3) The many reform movements of this time included abolitionism, temperance, suffrage, health, and dress reforms, many of which were interrelated. For example, many women who were involved in the abolitionist movement later fought for women's suffrage. Also, health reforms for women were often related to dress reform, and the need for women to wear more comfortable clothing.

In the mid-nineteenth century, American women wore restrictive clothing, such as corsets and hoop skirts, while clothing for men had become more functional and comfortable. Women who adopted "male" clothing were perceived as challenging traditional gender roles, and none was more famous than Amelia Bloomer. Bloomer advocated for women wearing trousers, or "bloomers," under their skirts. (4) Bloomer was a journalist and temperance worker who attended the 1848 women's rights convention in Seneca Falls. By 1850, Bloomer was defending the wearing of "pantelettes" in The Lily, a temperance journal she had founded. Her articles received widespread attention, as women wrote in asking for more information and patterns for this style of dress--a style that by then had become known as the "Bloomer Costume." (5) Bloomer felt, however, that this fervor detracted from more important women's rights issues. She eventually left the journal in the hands of others and later continued her activism as a member of the Ladies' Temperance, Soldiers' Aid, and Iowa Woman Suffrage Societies. …

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