Women of Courage: A Biography and Art Collaborative Activity

By Reese, Lyn | Social Studies Review, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Women of Courage: A Biography and Art Collaborative Activity


Reese, Lyn, Social Studies Review


The Women of Courage biographies activity is a research-based project for students to learn about historic and contemporary women from countries beyond the United States. The ultimate intent is not to present a gallery of famous women, but to demonstrate a process in which social studies and art classes, and museums and schools, can work together to enhance awareness of our world's extraordinary women. It also has the potential of becoming a class web site or whole school exhibit.

As a member of the education committee of the San Francisco International Museum of Women (IMOW), I initiated this collaborative project with Sherry Keith, professor of a course called "Women in the World," at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Sherry recruited history professor Sarah Curtis who teaches "Women in Europe," and Julie Marshall's San Francisco State University art class. IMOW added Hillary Younglove's high school art class at Sonoma Academy, a private school in Sonoma County which has a strong international focus.

IMOW is a museum without walls based in San Francisco and has mounted speakers series, exhibits, programs, and a series of outreach workshops for underserved adolescent groups throughout the Bay Area. It is the first U.S. institution to feature the history and contemporary gender issues of women from a global point of view, in effect to look at the world through women's eyes. Its most recent effort is Imagining Ourselves, an innovative interactive online exhibit using a variety of creative pieces through which twenty through thirty-year old women from around the world have gathered on line to discuss issues of importance to themselves. Imagining Ourselves is only one part of the museum's web site which also offers teacher guides based on past exhibits. The complete Women of Courage activity, which includes sixteen biographies with accompanying portraits, a separate page of quotes, and activity instructions for teachers, can be accessed on the museum's section under curriculum: www.imow.org. It also can be viewed on my site which features classroom materials including lessons, essays, and sixteen units on Before describing the activity procedure, I need to proclaim a caveat. As a women's history curriculum specialist, my main aim has been to bring large themes of women and gender into the traditional history canon, such as women's economic contributions or women's central roles in influencing major events, rather than emphasizing the accomplishments of individual, exemplary women. The trend now is to present a history in which gender truly becomes a useful category for historical analysis rather than the old "add and stir" approach. I thus admit to ambivalent feelings about promoting a project which highlights the lives of the "worthies." However, one cannot ignore the fact that history is primarily about people, and having students create biographies ensures insights into a variety of perspectives and of lives "lived in different times and places, while involving the emotions, hopes, needs, challenges, and frailties that make us human." (Leckie, Shirley, January, 2006, Why Biograhies Matter in the Classroom, OAH Magazine of History).

In addition, for young people who are in the process of seeking their own identities and role models, discovering the heroines of history remains essential. No girl should have to say, as did first female securities and Exchange Commission broker Muriel Siebert, "We had no role models, and it was lonely." No boy should see the historical world populated only with males, giving the impression that what women did was not important.

Finally, having students produce biographies of women can help teachers overcome the difficulties we all have about how to fit the experiences of women into our World History lessons, where narratives slight women to a much larger degree than they do in U.S. History. The global nature of the Women of Courage biographies addresses the fact that "the vast new evidence of global connectedness has revived the imperative to better understand the world, especially the worldwide history of women. …

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