Her Name is Woman…in 45 Minutes
In education, it is our job to inspire leaders and movers and shakers. Some students will strive to change the world in any aspect and they will achieve it. Other students don’t want to run the world but will eventually need the skill of advocating for themselves at work or elsewhere. It is our job then, as the educator, to give them these skills and help them connect the dots of inequality and injustice. In recent years, we’ve seen teachers shy away from reactive topics in fear that they’ll say the wrong thing or use the wrong activity and the message of “stand up for change” will be lost to the hordes of angry people. I challenge that here and say that even the wrong activity with the right intentions can be another motivator for change and another way to continue to encourage students to be the ones to stand up when everyone else lays down.
This article will use the historical research of connections between the increased workforce participation of women in World War II and the second-wave feminist movement of the 60s to detail a lesson in which to inspire change.
The general storyline goes along these lines. In 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the US entered World War II, the US workforce was left seriously depleted. Most of the men were shipped to boot camp and then overseas. Women stepped in to fill the numerous job openings left behind. They built tanks and planes and put together guns and trucks. The entire nation held to rations and scavenged for anything to help the war effort.
Once the war was over, many of the young women went home to start families but many stayed in the workforce; they only had to find new jobs now that the men had returned home to reclaim their former positions. To try and keep the country’s positive momentum of an upbeat attitude and growing economy, there was a push to return to normalcy. This normalcy was in the papers but the proof wasn’t there. Despite the iconic American 50s housewife, plenty of women worked! In fact, most of the statistics reporting women’s participation in the workforce stayed the same. Women had joined the workforce and they were here to stay.
As racial tensions rose in the late 1950s and early 1960s, so did a woman’s desire to achieve more than the perfect housewife in a magazine. Women started going to college to get degrees instead of marrying husbands. They pushed out into the workforce and found themselves dealing with bigots and discrimination. They realized that they were treated as second-class citizens just as much as Black Americans were and entered second-wave feminism. This was a movement focused on equal pay for equal work. At this time, the two-income, middle-class household was on the rise and not only do they want the money, they want the respect. If they were doing the work, they should get just as much recognition. With the historical context established, the lesson can move onto what it’s really about: standing up for change.
While history is bursting with examples of people standing up for what they believe, the same examples of famous people or larger than life figures can be intimidating to a young mind. How can anyone compare themselves to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks? Instead of the typical examples, this is an opportunity to discuss and really focus on the grassroots movements or movements that weren’t even movements at the time. Relating these events and people to the very students in your classroom whether they identify with the marginalized group at hand or not.
For example, during WWII, amongst the many women who went to work in factories, there was a group of women allowed into the United Auto Workers Union and their story is a great example of people making a difference without even knowing it. These women began working at the factory and were allowed into the UAW since they worked and mostly deserved the same rights that the men who worked in the factories had. All was well, these women were paid good wages and had a good amount of work to do but these women knew that the end of the war was coming and they wanted to keep their jobs. In response, the union created a women’s department within their war department to handle women for the duration of their work with the factory. The women’s department was created to handle what were considered “special employment problems” that came with women: childcare, workplace harassment and discrimination, federal regulations regarding how many hours women were allowed to work and so on. Even though this doesn’t seem like much, it was in fact a huge step. The American Federation of Labor was openly biased against women at the time claiming them to be “unorganizable and unworthy of organization”. The UAW persevered and moved the women’s department to the jurisdiction of the Bureau to the Fair Practices and Anti-Discrimination Department within the UAW and they continued to fight for women to be treated fairly and equally in the workplace.
Another example is a woman named Lousie Bushnell. For the sake of this article, it is not known if Louise Bushnell did anything spectacular in her life. However, she did deliver a speech to the American Business Women’s Association on Boss’s Night, September 10th, 1970. In her speech, she calls women to action. She explains that their past relatives in the early 1900’s didn’t finish the job of equality and now they must continue the fight. She called for women to participate in government and to lift each other up to success. While this speech is nothing out of the ordinary or particularly special, it is a woman fighting for what she believes. She addresses a group of men and women and speaks her mind in a professional and dignified manner while demanding the equality she knows she and other women deserve.
This is where the “so what?” comes in. Use these examples to your advantage. “Look at this woman who spoke up for what she believed in!” “Look at what these women ask for what they want and pursue whatever steps necessary to fight for what they want!” The key here is this: “you have no idea who they are”. The point here is that just because you are one person or “just” you, you still have immense power to spark, create, or advocate for change. You only need to want it.
The best way to encourage students to be active in their own community through choice is to give them practice. For this, a worksheet was designed to help break down the different parts of being an activist with the four key steps of: identify a problem in your community, think of a solution, find peers to support your cause, spread the word. This activity, whether they work in pairs or groups or individually, helps them practice questioning issues they disagree with and being productive in their resolution. Too often we see a problem and don’t say anything or help resolve it and this activity can put them into the proper mindset of finding solutions instead of just accepting a reality that doesn’t have to be so.
From practice, this activity would work best if given more than one class period to work on it and start small, think inside the school community first and then branch out. Small groups can be good practice for collaboration, respect, and compromise when working with peers. You can have them make posters and take this as far as you want. Have them design a class issue and present it to the principal. Have them focus on the rest of the community and write a letter to the mayor. Have them mobilize on social media and create a hashtag or twitter page. The idea is to get them to act on their ideas and principles.
The big idea here is to use examples from past leaders, regardless of name recognition, to inspire a future generation of activists and advocates for change and a better world. They may not remember that the UAW instituted the women’s department under the war department. They may not care about second-wave feminism or the booming economy of the 60s. They may not like your class at all but what matters is what they walk away with and this is a skill for life that could inspire who knows countless others. If one student walks away and creates the next big advocacy group, you helped a grassroots organization. If one student walks away and only dvocates for her/himself, and her/his coworkers, you helped mold a leader.
Bushnell, L. (1970, September 10). “What Happened to Eve?” Speech presented at American Business Women’s Association (Boss’s Night)
Gabin, N. (1979/1980). “Women workers and the UAW in the post-World War II period.” Labor History, 21 (1), winter 1979/1980.