Whose Story is it, Now? Re-examining Women’s Visibility in 21st Century World History Textbooks

Erica M. Southworth, St. Norbert College; Jenna Kempen, St. Norbert College; Melonie Zielinski, Port Washington High School, Port Washington, WI

     At the start of the twenty-first century, Clark, Ayton, Frechette, and Keller (2005) conducted a content analysis study focusing on the visibility of women in social studies textbooks and published their findings in the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) publication Social Education. In their article, “Women of the World, Re-write!,” Clark et al. discussed how their study specifically analyzed popular United States secondary world history textbooks in order to determine whether or not women’s inclusion in the texts had increased or decreased between 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s editions of each textbook. The purpose of conducting their study was to investigate whether or not a previous report by Sadker and Sadker (1994) concerning the invisibility of women in a 1991 world history textbook applied to most 1990s texts and to see if world history textbooks had improved in promoting women’s inclusion (Clark et al., 2005).

     As a result, Clark and his colleagues did find evidence that women were severely marginalized in world history texts despite the fact that the percentages of women’s inclusion had increased over the three decades. For example, Clark et al. reported that women’s inclusion increased in five of their six coding indicators: (1) Ratio of Women to Men in Index; (2) Percent of Pages Mentioning Women; (3) Women about Whom a Paragraph is Devoted; (4) Percent of Sentences Mentioning Women and (4) Percent of Pictures with Women. Yet the highest percent Clark et al. found was 37.9% in the Percent of Pictures with Women indicator, demonstrating a woeful imbalance between male and female representation in textbooks throughout the twentieth century. The question now is has female inclusion increased in twenty-first century world history textbooks since the study by Clark et al.?

     Our professional positionalities as females in secondary social studies education encouraged us to delve deeper into this question. Erica is a former secondary social studies teacher and currently serves as a pre-service social studies methods assistant professor. She is well aware that the NCSS updated the 1994 National Curriculum Standards and the ten newly revised standards provide educators with a more focused framework for constructing a more holistic social studies curriculum (NCSS, 2010), however, she wondered if textbook publishers had followed that educational trend as well. Jenna is currently a secondary social studies pre-service teacher and Melonie is currently in her second year as a full-service secondary social studies teacher. Both Jenna and Melonie wondered to what extent they, as twenty-first century social studies educators, would need to find additional curriculum and historical documentation of women’s accounts and experiences if textbooks still contained male-biased content.

     The following article outlines how we conducted a replication study from a feminist research lens of the content analysis performed by Clark et al. (2005) and analyzed 2000 and 2010 editions of nationally available secondary world history textbooks. Unfortunately, our findings revealed that the call put forth by Clark et al. for women to “rewrite” has been largely ignored as very little to no progress has been made towards the equitable inclusion of women in twenty-first century secondary world history textbooks. We conclude by re-emphasizing the need for social studies educators of all genders to join the movement for women’s inclusion and that all of us, as a collective whole, should strive to achieve this goal by advocating for genderbased reforms in state and national social studies exam content in addition to the on-going call for textbook content revisions.

Review of the literature

      Our literature review consisted of a twostep process. First, we reviewed the studies pertaining to women’s visibility noted by Clark et al. (2005) to ground our study. These included the published findings of Commeyras and Alvermann (1996), Sadker and Sadker (1994), Tetreault (1989), and Trecker (1971), all of which indicated a distinct pattern of women’s omission and/or marginalization in textbooks. Another study cited by Clark et al. (2005), however, indicated significant statistical increases in percentage comparisons of women’s visibility in textbooks textual lines discussing women and textbook pages devoted to women in textbooks published in the latter part of the twentieth century (Clark, Allard, & Mahoney, 2004). These findings deviated greatly compared to studies from earlier decades (Arlow & Froschl, 1976; R. Lerner et al., 1991; Trecker, 1971; Weinbaum, 1979). Yet none of the increases found in Clark et al. (2004) brought female visibility to an equitable balance with that of males.

     Studies also confirmed textbooks’ use of the contributionist theory (Commeyras & Alvermann, 1996; Sadker & Sadker, 1995). The contributionist theory, commonly referred to as fragmentation or the contributionist method, occurred most frequently as a solution to quell calls from Women’s Movement activists concerning gender-biased textbooks. This method attempts to incorporate women into texts by inserting a picture, a vignette, or a textbox isolating the information and suspending them in a “fragmented” form that is separated from the main body content (Sadker, Sadker, & Long, 1989; Sadker & Zittleman, 2007; Stalker, 1998; Trecker, 1971). The segregated nature of fragmentation reinforces gender stereotypes of women’s minimal influence in history and dismisses any regard for women’s cultural significance as a group (Sadker et al., 1989; Sadker & Zittleman, 2007).

     In the second part of our literature review process, we searched for and reviewed additional content analysis studies regarding women’s visibility and/or agency in secondary world history textbooks published between 2005 and 2014 in peer-reviewed journals to see how the topic of women in textbooks had progressed since the study by Clark et al. (2005). We used the term agency because it allowed us to expand our review and because of its use in both anthropology and feminist research. From an anthropological perspective, agency consists of the study of why an individual chose to act in the manner they did, including what cultural influences might have contributed to the act(ions) (Geertz, 1973). And, according to feminist researchers Abu-Lughod (2008) and McNay (2000), the term “agency” further serves as an explanation of how gender identity is formed and potentially malleable in social contexts; all of which directly connect to how textbook content (social artifacts) are interpreted from a gendered perspective.

     Searching for additional content analyses that matched the above criteria produced two important outcomes. The most significant outcome was that no content studies emerged from this search, including any study that attempted to replicate and/or build upon the study conclusions found by Clark et al. (2005) regarding women’s inclusion in twenty-first century secondary world history textbooks. In this capacity, our study helps fill this void by providing social studies educators with a continuum of how the newest editions of previously analyzed textbooks have – or have not – addressed the marginalization of women.

     The second outcome is that two other peer-reviewed articles regarding women’s visibility in textbook imagery (Woyshner, 2006) and gender bias (Blumberg, 2008) did emerge and spoke to the breadth of omission of women’s historical agency. Woyshner (2006), for example, notes that students may see only one or two pictures of women in textbooks yet they are supposed to cobble together an understanding of women’s overall impacts and contributions in history based on just this meager representation. Blumberg (2008) analyzed textbook and educational testing data from countries and regions all over the world, including the United States, and concludes that Gender Bias in Textbooks (GBIT) is worldwide and can play a role in diminishing girls’ achievements. These post-2005 sources help contextualize the historic and continued struggle of women’s (equitable) inclusion in social studies textbooks by pointing out the ever-prevalent scarcity and marginalization of female agents.

Research questions

   The primary research question for this study builds off of the study performed by Clark et al. (2005) in that we investigated whether or not women’s visibility in world history textbooks had increased in the 2000s and 2010s editions in comparison to the 1960-1990s editions of the same textbooks (as published by Clark et al.). To answer this research question, we deliberately selected four gender indicators used by Clark et al.: (1) Ratio of Women to Men in Index; (2) Percent of Pages Mentioning Women; (3) Ratio of Named Women to Men in Pictures; and (4) Percent of Sentences Mentioning Women.

     Although not noted as an indicator, Clark et al. also included findings and discussion on the ratio of female to male textbook authors in their study, tentatively proposing that textbooks with female authors – specifically those with a female lead / primary author – were inclined to have higher ratings of women’s visibility. Our second research question, therefore, asked whether the number of female textbook authors could continue to serve as an indicator of women’s visibility in textbooks.


     Feminist theory and research served as the theoretical lens for this study because it focuses on “women’s issues, voices, and lived  experiences” (Hesse-Biber, 2014, p. 3). Feminist theory and research also aims to investigate areas of power contention between genders and advocates for social transformations if unequal divisions of power exist (Crotty, 1998; HesseBiber, 2014). Clark et al. (2005) did not directly mention the use of this paradigm as the foundation of their study; however, their research was, indeed, feminist-based. Clark et al. also specifically referenced other content analysis studies that utilized a feminist research lens such as Commeyras and Alvermann (1996) and Trecker (1971). Additionally, Commeyras and Alvermann (1996) used Offen’s (1988) definition of feminism in that feminism serves as a method for analyzing the levels of cultural influence wielded by the sexes to determine where balance should be celebrated and where the presence of female societal subordination, due to male privilege, should be changed. Offen’s definition provides a succinct and relevant description of feminism that Commeyras and Alvermann (1996) used to ground their content analysis. We believed this definition to be highly applicable to our replication study as well and feminist theory served as our theoretical framework. This framework recognizes the female-male (sex) binary concept aligned with the idea of creating equality between the sexes through research and political transformations, a shared goal among second and third wave feminists (Ashcraft, 1998; Evans, 1995; Hesse-Biber, 2014; Hoffman, 2001; Lerner, 1986; Mann & Huffman, 2005).

Study design

     For their study, Clark et al. (2005) used the lists of recommended textbooks or rankings of nationally adopted textbooks published by the American Textbook Council. Unfortunately, the American Textbook Council no longer houses these lists due to a severely reduced pool of textbook publishers (American Textbook Council, 2018). Currently only three major publishers exist: Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (American Textbook Council, 2018). We therefore could not get the exact twenty-first century editions of all twelve textbooks originally analyzed by Clark et al. because some of the texts no longer exist. Instead we compiled a sample of five 2000 and 2010 editions of secondary world history textbooks previously analyzed by Clark et al. (2005), or the closest version possible, in order to model our content analysis study as closely as possible to that of Clark et al. (Table 1).

Table 1: Textbook sample

    Prior to coding the textbooks, we conducted an independent pilot coding test to ensure all of our coding variables were identified appropriately with foundational and concrete coding descriptions using as much insight from Clark et al. (2005) as possible. Jenna and Melonie, our designated textbook coders, then also completed a Cohen’s kappa statistic to ensure an intercoder agreement statistic of 85% or above. These steps followed recommended content analysis study research protocol in regards to strengthening coder training and increasing the reliability of our study (Neuendorf, 2011; 2017). Upon completing these tasks successfully, the designated coders proceeded to code the textbooks on the following predetermined indicators that previously used by Clark et al. (2005): (1) Ratio of Women to Men in Index; (2) Percent of Pages Mentioning Women; (3) Ratio of Named Women to Men in Pictures; and (4) Percent of Sentences Mentioning Women.

     As in Clark et al. (2005), we relied on the index of each textbook when coding data for all indicators and, if gender proved ambiguous in a name listed in the index, we referenced the surrounding text and/or supplemental text for pronoun context clues on pages that cited the historical agent in question. If gender still could not be determined after referencing all of the noted textbook pages, we listed the agent as “gender neutral” rather than seeking gender confirmation in other resources (e.g., internet, books). We followed this procedure based on the rational that if a high school student reads the text and had no prior background knowledge of the agent in question, the student would not be able to determine the agent’s gender either. In consideration of indicator four, and deviating from the 1-in-10 systematic sample process used by Clark et al., we counted every line that mentioned women in each textbook using the index as our guide. In each index, for example, we found “Catherine the Great” listed and examined each corresponding textbook page listed after her name for our line (sentence) counts. We counted each line only once, even when an agent and the same page number was listed more than once in the index, to prevent skewed data. We felt this process of sentence data collection was appropriate since we had a much smaller sample to analyze compared to Clark et al. and because this provided the most accuracy in regards to data collection and for analysis purposes. We housed all of our data in Google Spreadsheet grids that we specifically created for this study.


     We reviewed the results of our study in a two-tiered process. First, we examined the results generated from each twenty-first century textbook in comparison with the other texts in our sample. Then we compiled the results and compared them by decades with the findings of Clark et al. (2005).

Women’s visibility in 2000 and 2010 world history textbook editions

     Our findings, like those of Clark et al, revealed that twenty-first century secondary world history textbooks continue to marginalize female historical agents (Table 2). We found in the Ratio of Women to Men in Index indicator that twelve women were listed for every 100 men listed at best (Ellis & Esler, 2005) and only eight for every 100 at worst (Judge & Langdon, 2012). The Percent of Pages Mentioning Women never rose to even a quarter (25) percent and, at worst, was less than ten percent (Beck, Black, Krieger, Naylor, & Shabaka, 2012). Regarding the Ratio of Names of Women to Men in Pictures, approximately 15 women were mentioned for every 100 men in three of the texts (Farah & Karls, 2001; Beck, et al., 2012; Judge & Langdon, 2012) and in one text 17 women to every 100 men were noted (Ellis & Esler, 2005). Only 11 women per 100 men were found in the last text (Beck et al., 2005). Concerning the Percent of Sentences Mentioning Women indicator, four textbooks attributed approximately one percent of content to sentences about women (Beck et al. 2005; 2012; Ellis & Esler, 2005; Judge & Langdon, 2012) and one textbook attributed two percent (Farah & Karls, 2001).

Table 2: Findings of 2000 and 2010 Editions Secondary World History Textbooks

     When we compiled our sample findings into decade statistics (Table 3) we discovered that the Ratio of Women to Men and Pages Mentioning Women indicators in textbooks published in the 2000s increased since the 1990s, continuing a trend from the 1980s to the 1990s as noted by Clark et al. (2005). Unfortunately, these two indicators decreased in textbooks from the 2000s to the 2010s. This decreasing trend also occurred in the Names of Women to Men in Pictures and Sentences Mentioning Women indicators from the 1990s to 2010s.

Table 3: Comparison of Women and Men’s Visibility in Textbooks through the Decades Decade

Bolded text indicates an increase in women’s inclusion for that category in comparison to the previous decade Italicized text indicates a decrease in women’s inclusion for that category in comparison to the previous decade

     Additionally, Clark et al. conducted ttests in their 2005 study based on decade (i.e., averaged data from the 1960s, 1980s, and 1990s) and reported that eight out of the twelve tests found statistically significant differences between the decades when comparing the indicators of female visibility in textbooks. Specifically, four t-tests found statistically significant differences between the 1960s and 1980s textbook data and four t-tests found the same results between the 1980s and 1990s textbook data. Although our sample was considerably smaller than that used by Clark et al., we also performed t-tests to determine whether differences between our 2000 and 2010 indicator data was statistically significant. Not surprisingly, the results of our t-test between the 2000 and 2010 textbook editions of Patterns of Interactions and the t-test between the 2000 and 2010 textbook editions of Connections were not significant at the .01 level.

Female Textbook Author(s) as an Indicator of Women’s Visibility in Textbooks

     Finally, Clark et al. noted that any increases in female visibility in textbooks across the study’s indicators might be attributed to female authorship of the texts. We also examined the number of female and male authors for each text in our sample to see if any potential similar patterns surfaced. We found that the 2000 textbooks had four female and five male authors, while the 2010 textbooks had two female and five male authors (Table 4). Two of the 2000s textbooks, World History: Connections to Today and World History: The Human Experience, had an equal ratio of female to male authors including the sole lead female author (Ellis & Esler, 2005). These two texts also had the highest percentages in the Women to Men in Index and Named Women to Men indicators; Human Experience also had the highest percent regarding Sentences Mentioning (Table 2).

     When comparing women’s inclusion via decade, the 2000s clearly show an increase in women’s visibility in three of the four indicators since the 1990s (Table 3). In this case, both the 1990s sample had four female authors, including one lead author (Clark et al.), and the 2000s sample had four female authors, including one lead author (Table 4). Between the 2000s and 2010s, however, the female to male author ratio dipped to an unequal balance of two females and five males and women’s visibility decreased in three of the four indicators. The sole indicator that increased only did so by 0.2 percent.

Table 4: Comparison of Women and Men Textbook Authors in 2000 and 2010 Textbooks


     Based on the findings of our study, it is evident that women’s visibility in world history textbooks has decreased in the 2000s and 2010s editions in comparison to the 1960-1990s editions of the same textbooks (as published by Clark et al.). Individually, 2000 and 2010 editions of secondary world history textbooks continue to grossly marginalize female historical agents as women were represented less than a quarter of the time in each of the four indicators. Drawing once again from Offen’s (1988) definition of feminism, this indicates a distinct level of imbalance between the levels of cultural influence wielded by the sexes due to male privilege exists in secondary world history textbooks and this further legitimizes female societal subordination.

     Equally depressing were the compiled decade findings of our study in comparison with the findings of Clark et al. (2005). Clark et al. reported increases in four indicators between the 1960s and 1980s data and increases again in three indicators between the 1980s and 1990s data, although none of the increases resulted in more than a 22% representation of women. Our findings, unfortunately, indicated only increases in two indicators between the 1990s and 2000s data and a 0.2% increase in one indicator between the 2000s and 2010s data. Clearly, the distinct pattern of women’s omission and/or marginalization in textbooks found by Commenyras and Alvermann (1996), Sadker and Sadker (1994), Tetreault (1989), and Trecker (1971) has continued well into the twenty-first century. As Blumberg (2008) states, Gender Bias in Textbooks (GBIT) is worldwide and can play a role in diminishing girls’ achievements and such socio-gender patterns are detrimental to all students’ well-being as well as their understanding of social studies.

Gender of textbook author: A questionable indicator of women’s visibility

     In 2005, Clark et al. stated that “Trecker’s (1971) Social Education article or the women’s movement (or both) did, in fact, have an impact on the way world history books have been written. […] We notice, however, that an influx of women authors for the books may have also played a role.” (p.44) We believe that this statement made by Clark et al. continues to be a good discussion point concerning the potential positive correlation between female textbook authors and female visibility in textbook content, especially in studies grounded in feminist theory. Examining the possible power hierarchies between genders and advocating for social transformations if inequitable power divisions exist comprises the focus of feminist research (Crotty, 1998; HesseBiber, 2014). It is important, however, to be extremely mindful of all the data when examining potential gender power hierarchies. In our study, for example, we found that the two textbooks with equitable female to male author ratios (and one with a lead female author) had higher percentages in almost all four indicators of women’s visibility. Yet it is equally important to note that 23.3% was the highest percentage found in all four indicators for these two textbooks, which is despairingly low, and this is more than 10 percent points below 37.9%, the highest indicator percentage reported by Clark et al. (2005).

In addition, both Patterns of Interaction textbooks had the same authors for the 2005 and 2012 editions and, despite having two female authors for each edition, the findings in Table 2 show that women’s visibility only advanced in the Named Women to Men in Pictures indicator; all other 2012 indicators mirrored the same percentages as the 2005 edition. To expound on this comparison, Connections: A World History was the only textbook in our sample with no female authors, yet this textbook had higher percentage findings than both editions of Patterns of Interaction in all indicators except one.

   Finally, it is important to note that while textbook publishers typically hire academics and experts as authors, publishers can also perform a considerable amount of editing and content revisions after authors have submitted their respective contributions (Jobrack, 2012; Lowen, 2007). In this regard, the published textbook content may not accurately reflect the original content contributed by the hired authors so author gender data may not be a very accurate measure of gender-balanced content. We believe that our study’s t-test findings supports the idea of textbook publishers’ hesitation to alter text content from edition to edition since no statistically significant progress was made in women’s inclusion in content between the 2000 and 2010 editions of our sample textbooks. At this point, we believe that there needs to be further exploration in this area prior to determining whether a positive correlation exists between female authorship and the amount and degree of female inclusion in textbooks.

Implications for practice

     Well over a decade has passed since Clark et al. published their study and our findings indicate that women’s inclusion in textbooks remains pitifully low in twenty-first century secondary world history textbooks. Solutions put forth by other women’s agency advocates, such as asking educators to supplement the textbook with women’s agency resources (Blumberg, 2008; Woyshner, 2006), only place additional curriculum burdens on educators and they do not incite uniform change in textbook content. This raises the question of whether women’s exclusion from secondary history textbooks continues to occur because of gender or because of the traditional emphasis on historically “male” events, such as war, since the reduction of this content would require extensive and expensive revisions by textbook publishers (Jobrack, 2012; Noddings, 1997). To complicate matters further, the selection of world history textbooks has shrunk dramatically to include only the products from three major publishers (American Textbook Council, 2018). This small pool of textbook publishers can negatively affect social studies teachers’ availability to secure the gender-diversified curriculum materials, which could enable teachers to implement a more gender inclusive, and holistic social studies curriculum. This, of course, also affects teachers’ abilities to scaffold learning opportunities for their students so that students can successfully meet the updated NCSS National Curriculum Standards (NCSS, 2010).

     To address this dilemma, we believe that there must be a “high stakes” goal to revive and revitalize the agenda of gender equality in textbooks and, more importantly, to succeed indefinitely in providing social studies students with more holistic – and realistic – historic perspectives. In this vein, we propose a push by social studies educators for national and state social studies test revisions, rather than “just” textbook revisions, as the high stakes goal moving forward in the twenty-first century.

National and state social studies tests: A “rigged” system

     Companies that produce textbooks are also often involved in the creation and production of national and state test materials. In our state, for example, McGraw-Hill has been a test/assessment design partner with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) in Wisconsin since 1975 (Wisconsin Department of Instruction, n.d). As a codesigner, McGraw-Hill representatives helped determine the assessment questions that would evaluate the subject-proficiency of Wisconsin students in grades 4, 8, and 10 in the areas of social studies, reading, science, math, and language arts/writing (Wisconsin Department of Instruction, n.d.). The 2017 Wisconsin Forward Exam Social Studies Grade 10 Item Samplers (2017) offers 17 sample questions and in these 17 questions the term “women” is only mentioned twice: once as an incorrect answer to a question about (male) veterans’ benefits in the 1950s and once in a sample document that students need to read in order to answer two sample questions (“women” were not mentioned in either of the questions’ text or multiple choice answers). No questions specifically noted an individual woman or named a woman. In contrast, six of the questions referenced male dominant groups (e.g., veterans, mid-1800s European Leaders, Congress) and five individual men were referenced by name in four questions (i.e., Henry Ford, Albert Beveridge, Roland Damiani, Muhammad, Jesus) (Wisconsin Department of Instruction, 2017.). This example demonstrates the reinforcement of distorted gender patterns found in textbook content on a deeper and more extensive level with required state exams rather than being confined to “just” the classroom.

Protest against testing materials: Use AP art teachers as a model

     It is imperative for us, as an educational community, to consider all the angles, including protesting and/or boycotting state and national testing materials, when advocating for an equitable increase in women’s visibility and agency in world history textbooks. As an example, we could look to implement a movement similar to what artists and art educators did when they protested against the Advanced Placement (AP) College Board’s high school AP Art Exam. In this movement, the artists and art educators banded together and advocated for the inclusion of traditionally marginalized groups of artists in the AP Art History curriculum (Urist, 2016). In response to the social and educational pressure, the AP College Board revised its AP Art History curriculum from a predominantly Eurocentric focus to curriculum of artwork diversified by race and gender. The revised, more holistic curriculum allowed AP art teachers to provide more meaningful discussion opportunities with their students and, by extension, allowed students to make meaningful cultural connections to the art, too (Urist, 2016).


     In sum, the results of our study exemplifies how Clark et al.’s (2005) call “Women of the world, re-write!” has not been answered in almost two decades. Instead, women’s visibility in secondary world history textbooks remains discouragingly low in comparison to men’s, despite the presence of female textbook authors, serving only to reaffirm the traditional and marginalized position of women as “observers of history” rather than as equitable contributors of history. The lack of women’s visibility in history within textbooks perpetrates doubt and confusion among students while simultaneously calling into question women’s’ ability to thrive in all cultural components of their society (Sadker & Sadker, 1995). Instead, we as social studies educators need to present a more accurate historical understanding of social studies through multiple perspectives in world history texts, especially gender, to ensure that our students can meet state and national social studies standards. To accomplish this, we need to begin strongly advocating for equal gender representation in national and state social studies tests as an extension of textbook revision. With test revision as our “high stakes” education goal, we might also see goal of second and third wave feminists – to create equality between the sexes via political transformation – finally come to fruition in the twenty-first century (Ashcraft, 1998; Evans, 1995; Hesse-Biber, 2014; Hoffman, 2001; Lerner, 1986; Mann & Huffman, 2005).


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