Publication Date

February 28, 2022

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


African American, Teaching Methods, Women, Gender, & Sexuality

To the Editor:

I applaud Bridget Riley’s initiative and diligence in working with her students to incorporate the experiences of women, including African American women, during the era of the American Revolution, as she describes in “Missing Women: Tackling Gender Imbalance in Social Studies Textbooks” (January 2022).

The main example Riley offers of a student project uncovering a neglected female voice of the revolutionary era is particularly compelling. I was not familiar with Mary Perth, an enslaved woman. A quick internet search revealed not only that she was a lay Methodist preacher but that she escaped from enslavement in Virginia with British forces, going first to Nova Scotia, then to Sierra Leone and England. As a former high school social studies teacher who went on to teach social studies education as part of my career in higher education, I am impressed that Riley’s seventh-grade students are learning that—as serious scholars of the revolution have long pointed out—some African Americans found the British to facilitate freedom more readily than did the “Patriots.” That insight certainly validates Riley’s comment that in broadening the American historical experience, we must “move beyond the ‘just add women [and racial and ethnic minorities] and stir’ approach.”

Nevertheless, I was disappointed that Riley chose not to name the textbook in question, which she asserts includes only a single paragraph about women (along with similar paragraphs about African Americans and American Indians) only toward the end of a 55-page chapter. Aside from the resulting inability of readers to verify Riley’s critique, this nonspecific reference lets the textbook author(s) and publisher off the hook with regard to the need for revisions.

Singling out such publishers for precise, evidence-based critique is extremely important. As I have recently argued elsewhere, there is an unfortunate and inaccurate tendency among the educated public and even among some scholars to assume that history textbooks (especially those designed for secondary schools) are unchanging, failing to incorporate the insights of decades of scholarship on race, gender, and other topics. Textbook critiques are essential, but they must be grounded in specific evidence, and the improvements that have been made in some textbooks should be credited.

Robert Shaffer
Shippensburg University (emeritus)

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