New Augmented Reality App Celebrates Stories of Women Typically Omitted from U.S. History Textbooks

How do we know if we’ve lived through a major shift toward greater equal­i­ty? Maybe it’s when his­to­ry text­books start telling dif­fer­ent sto­ries than the ones they’ve always told about heroes in knee breech­es, waist­coats, epaulets, top hats, and beards. Aside from the occa­sion­al his­tor­i­cal fig­ure in bon­net or bloomers, most texts real­ly have just told “his sto­ry.”

In the U.S., at least, stud­ies show that only 11% of the sto­ries in his­to­ry text­books are about women. Is this because 50% of the pop­u­la­tion only con­tributed to 11% per­cent of the country’s events? No, even the kids know—like the kids in the video above from a new app called Lessons in Her­sto­ry—his­to­ry most­ly fea­tures men because “a lot of it was writ­ten by men and was most­ly all about men.”

Text­book mak­ers, and the school boards who give them march­ing orders, may stick to their guns, so to speak, but anoth­er major shift could ren­der their dic­tates irrel­e­vant. Smart­phone and tablet tech­nol­o­gy has become so famil­iar to today’s kids that instead of turn­ing the pages, they “swipe, like, in the his­to­ry books,” as one of the young­sters puts it.

Stu­dents stuck with the old patri­ar­chal ped­a­go­gies can eas­i­ly sup­ple­ment, enhance, or sub­sti­tute their edu­ca­tion with new media. While there are some seri­ous down­sides to this phe­nom­e­non, giv­en a dis­tinct lack of qual­i­ty con­trol online, the inter­net has also opened up innu­mer­able oppor­tu­ni­ties for telling the sto­ries of women in his­to­ry.

Lessons in Her­sto­ry, built by an orga­ni­za­tion called Daugh­ters of the Evo­lu­tion, takes a unique approach. Instead of sup­plant­i­ng text­books, it adds to them in an aug­ment­ed real­i­ty smart­phone app (cur­rent­ly designed for ios devices) stu­dents can point at pic­tures of his­tor­i­cal dudes to pull up sto­ries about a notable women from the same time.

Grant­ed, some of these women, like Har­ri­et Tub­man and Saca­gawea, had already been grant­ed access to the lim­it­ed space allot­ted female fig­ures in grade school text­books. But a great many oth­er peo­ple in the app have not. Fea­tur­ing a diverse selec­tion of 75 her­stor­i­cal women, Lessons in Her­sto­ry is the prod­uct of ad agency Good­by Sil­ver­stein & Part­ners’ chief cre­ative offi­cer Mar­garet John­son, who launched it at this year’s SXSW.

The app has pret­ty lim­it­ed appli­ca­tion at the moment. It works with one text­book, A His­to­ry of US, Book 5: Lib­er­ty for All? 1820–1860, and with a hand­ful of his­tor­i­cal pho­tographs on its web­site. (Many of the women fea­tured made their mark after 1860.) But with plans to expand and with the back­ing of a large ad agency, who may or may not have their own designs in mar­ket­ing Lessons in Her­sto­ry, it promis­es to make women’s his­to­ry more acces­si­ble to stu­dents who already spend more time star­ing at screens than pages.

“There’s a say­ing,” writes Cara Cur­tis at The Next Web, “’you can’t be what you can’t see.’” Apps like Lessons in Her­sto­ry, along with a num­ber of influ­en­tial books and web­sites for young peo­ple that nar­rate the past through the lens of women, indige­nous peo­ple, African-Amer­i­cans, artists, activists, work­ing peo­ple, and so on, show kids that no mat­ter who they are or where they come from, peo­ple who looked like them have always made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions to his­to­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Matil­da Effect”: How Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists Have Been Denied Recog­ni­tion and Writ­ten Out of Sci­ence His­to­ry

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Women Philoso­phers: A New Web Site Presents the Con­tri­bu­tions of Women Philoso­phers, from Ancient to Mod­ern

Pop Art Posters Cel­e­brate Pio­neer­ing Women Sci­en­tists: Down­load Free Posters of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Gerald says:

    Like every­thing else, teach­ing involves trade-offs. US His­to­ry must focus on the key events and ideas. For a large part of US his­to­ry, men led those devel­op­ments. It is not a good use of class time to focus too much on mar­gin­al his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and events. I sus­pect that is the rea­son, and not because of “old patri­ar­chal ped­a­go­gies”, that text­books take their cur­rent form.

  • Lari says:

    So sayeth the man! And so it must be so!

  • Simone says:

    Lari: Exact­ly.

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