Star Wars and History Books: Teaching All Kids that Women Matter

My husband and I went holiday shopping for our three young daughters the other day. Our first stop was a popular big box retail store. After taking care of a few other items, I found him in one of the toy aisles with a perplexed look on his face. He was standing in front of the section of Star Wars toys – in particular looking for action figures from the new Star Wars Rebels series. If you don’t know, Star War Rebels was launched earlier this year as an animated show taking place five years before the original Star Wars movie series. For my Star Wars super-fan husband, that was exciting enough. But what pleased both of us is that two of the five main characters are women – and strong, impressive women at that. Sabine Wren and Hera Syndulla are smart, capable, and always in the middle of the action. Our almost 8-year old and almost 6-year old daughters love those characters and the show. They constantly act out being Hera and Sabine. How great is that? We both were thrilled with Lucasfilm for creating these characters our daughters can see themselves in.

Why aren’t the female characters on this shirt?

Back to the holiday gift shopping. Not a single Star Wars Rebels action figure or toy at the store featured these female characters. My husband was looking carefully at the tags where items sold out to see if they were just out of stock. No luck – they just weren’t available to purchase in the first place. Next we headed to the mall to continue with our shopping. We were hopeful we would find some stuff at the Disney store. But no such luck – nothing we saw in the Star Wars Rebels section contained the female characters. In fact, one of the boys’ t-shirts for sale featured all the male characters, but none of the women. What the heck? It’s just as bothersome that the boys’ items leave the women off – boys need to see women as strong leaders too. When I got home, I did some research and found out that Disney and Hasbro had been called out on this issue by several bloggers and the Twitterverse. You can read more here, here, and here. The good news is that the next round of action figures and toys will include Hera and Sabine…but I guess not in time for this holiday season. That’s a real shame and a missed opportunity.

One of the big reasons the Center for American Women and Politics launched Teach a Girl to Lead™ was because we know “you can’t be what you can’t see.” What my husband and I experienced in the shopping aisle is typical in classrooms. American history textbooks continue to emphasize the pivotal roles of men in U.S. history, but gloss over, or skip entirely, the contributions of women. One study found that in one of the most commonly-used second-grade textbooks, less than a quarter of the historical figures mentioned are women, and far fewer pages are devoted to the women than to the men (up to 5 pages of mentions for women leaders, while the men receive up to 22 pages worth of mentions.) It doesn’t get better as the students get older; in a popular high school history book, female historical figures are only 13% of those mentioned, and those women are mentioned, at most, on 6 pages, while some of the men were mentioned on as many as 36 pages. In their book Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, researchers Myra and David Sadker noted: “When girls do not see themselves in the pages of textbooks…our daughters learn that to be female is to be an absent partner in the development of our nation.”

If girls don’t see women leaders highlighted and showcased right along with men, how will they grow up thinking they can be leaders themselves? And if boys don’t see women showcased, how will they grow up thinking that leaders can look like their mothers, their sisters, and their female friends? What messages are we sending our kids? We can do better than this.

If you are looking for great gifts celebrating women’s leadership for the girls and boys in your life, check our ally A Mighty Girl. Their site is chock-full of terrific ideas and awesome products to cultivate the strong, confident girls in your life (including some Star Wars products!) On our Teach a Girl to Lead™ site, you can also find suggested books and films featuring women public leaders to enjoy with your kids over the winter break. Or get the kids out of the house and visit one of the places celebrating women’s leadership on the Programs & Places Map.

Kids believe what they see, and I’m going to make sure my girls see women leaders as much as they can. At least they can watch the Star Wars Rebels show with these great characters, even if they can’t play with the toys they wanted yet. Every step counts, so onward we go.