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Women's roles, now writ (too?) large

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"You're what?" says Neely. "Enlisting," says Matty, a young girl. "Lincoln's going to issue another call for volunteers, and when he does, I am signing up. I can't sit by and let this war pass me by."
- excerpt from "Matty's War," a book based on a true story about women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War.

Ten years ago, Carole Shmurak visited a dozen middle schools and 80 classrooms in central Connecticut to find out how much women's history was being taught.

The results? Just about zilch.

"Textbook publishers did include women in history books, but they were usually boxed off in a separate box and teachers would tend to skip over it," says the author and professor emeritus at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.

"When we talked to language arts teachers, very few of the books had female protagonists. When we questioned them, they said, 'That's just the way the curriculum is.' "

After finding almost no women on bulletin boards, or in textbooks, or classroom discussions, Ms. Shmurak and her coauthor, Tom Ratliff, decided to write a series of historical novels, such as "Matty's War," that would illuminate women's history. Since then, the pair has written several more books, which feature stories about a woman doctor on the frontier to post-Civil War women's rights.

The movement of trying to write more "her-story" into history, of course, has been going on for decades. But even as this month marks the 17th year that women's history month has been celebrated, there is still much dissatisfaction with the way women have - or haven't - been worked into history curricula.

Women are much more present today than they were anytime before 1980 or so, most observers agree. But the degree to which they should be present and the way that presence should be handled are still in dispute.


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