By Erica Jaros
“Women's history is American history,” said Mia Nagawiecki, Vice-President for Education at the New-York Historical Society. “Leaving them out neglects the truth, stifles nuance, and robs girls and women—as well as all Americans—of important stories of resilience, empowerment, and courage.”
In 2016, the New-York Historical Society created the Center for Women’s History in response to more than a decade of requests from educators. The Center’s flagship education initiative, Women & the American Story (WAMS), provides educational materials about historical women throughout U.S. history.
“Teachers had been asking for more women's history materials consistently because only 13 percent of historical figures in US history textbooks are women,” Nagawiecki said. “They know that is an inaccurate reflection of our nation's past, and that many of their students were disengaged with history because they couldn't see themselves.”
WAMS is geared toward middle school students but can be adapted for younger or older students. Nagawiecki explained that the website content includes resources to help students understand primary sources, including document transcriptions and "translations" into modern English, vocabulary words, and discussion prompts. The site is also free and openly accessible, so that curious lifelong learners may be inspired by the stories.
“We were fortunate to receive this critical support early on when we embarked on creating WAMS, which in total will be a five-year process,” Nagawiecki said. “The IMLS grant has directly supported the creation of the six units currently live on the site, well as two additional units currently in development.”
In total, WAMS will be comprised of 10 units, which covers 1492 through 2018. The newest unit, Building a New Nation 1783 – 1828, will be available in November this year.
Additionally, the grant allowed them to send staff members to conferences and deliver professional learning workshops for teachers in New York school districts and across the country. Most importantly they were able to establish critical partnerships, which is how they receive materials for WAMS. Those partners also facilitate distribution of the resources through their teacher programs and networks. Nagawiecki said that because of the IMLS grant, well over 150,000 users have already accessed WAMS in the two years it has been available.
Nagawiecki and staff knew the immensity of the project as they began. It needed to be a delicate balance of inclusive, comprehensive materials, but also user-friendly. Getting it done would require a large team of the Center’s staff and outside help to ensure the project's depth, breadth, accessibility, and accuracy.
“The support we received from IMLS enabled us to establish a deep team of advisors and establish connections across the country to ensure the work was representative of American history as it is taught in all regions of the country,” said Nagawiecki.
They started working with teachers, including their recently established "WAMSbassadors" teacher ambassador program to understand what it’s like teaching a particular topic or era in today’s American classrooms. For each unit, they employ a prominent historian as an advisor. They also reach out to partner institutions—Atlanta History Center, Chicago History Museum, Huntington Library, Missouri Historical Society, and Oregon Historical Society—for relevant and powerful resources from their collections that could help bring the unit to life.
WAMS also pulls from resources from previous exhibits. Nagawiecki recalled that Ariana DeBose’s reenactment of Francis Ellen Watkins Harper's "We are all bound up together" speech, a resource in the A Nation Divided, 1832-1877 unit, was originally created for the Center’s Women March exhibition.
For Nagawiecki, one of the most important aspects of WAMS is that it demonstrates how women's history can be integrated into the mainstream American historical narrative.
“Women's lives were—and in many ways continue to be—shaped by legal and cultural barriers, but that does not mean their roles and experiences are tangential to the American story,” said Nagawiecki. “Rather, it is critical to our understanding of history that we include diverse women's perspectives and actions because they were critical to shaping our nation.”