How teenager Prasidha Padmanabhan got more women of color added to history lessons

Prasidha Padmanabhan, 16, founded WEAR (Women for Education, Advocacy and Rights), a nonprofit with an executive board made up entirely of students. MUST CREDIT: Prasidha Padmanabhan.

If you happen to get into a conversation about American history with Prasidha Padmanabhan, you will have to keep reminding yourself of this: She is only 16.

The names of historically overlooked women flow from her in the same way the names of modern-day A-list celebrities flow from other kids her age.

She can tell you about the lives of Rebecca Lee Crumpler (the first African American woman to become a doctor) Queen Liliuokalani (the first woman and last person to rule Hawaii) and Claudette Colvin (a Black teenager who refused to give up her seat on a bus before Rosa Parks did).

She can tell you how the United States Sanitary Commission, which was created to support sick and wounded Union soldiers during the Civil War, grew out of the work of women and depended on the work of women.

She can tell you why, if you know about Paul Revere, you should also know about Sybil Ludington. Ludington was 16 when she rode through the night during the American Revolution to warn militia members of a British attack.

But Prasidha’s U.S. history knowledge is not why we ended up talking on a recent evening. I wanted to hear about what she had done with that knowledge. The teenager has not only spent the last few years learning about the historic and too-often unseen roles of women, and in particular women of color, but also has worked to make sure students in one of the country’s largest school systems have a chance to learn about them.

During the pandemic, Prasidha went from seeing people on social media talk about repealing the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote, to creating a student-led nonprofit, to working with educators from Fairfax County Public Schools to add more women’s history to curriculum offerings.

Her collaboration with school officials is ongoing, but so far, she has worked with social studies teachers to create Civil War material made available for sixth-grade U.S. history lessons, and she has written minibooks about Native American women for the school system’s young readers.

“She like many others noticed that when it comes to the stories we tell about Indigenous people in our K-12 classrooms, too often Native American people do not show up as individual people with lives and interests and contributions,” says Deborah March, who works for Fairfax Schools as a culturally responsive pedagogy specialist, a position that calls for her to support teachers and curriculum writers. “She created these short, accessible, image-laden biographies so that our younger elementary school learners can encounter Native American women as full human beings whose lives are worthy of study.”

Days ago, the U.S. Mint prompted public celebrations and conversations across the country. The Mint announced that coins from the American Women Quarters Program – which honors the remarkable contributions of women – had been shipped. The first quarters feature writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, who is also now the first Black woman to appear on a U.S. quarter.

Other women who will appear on the coins: Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly to space; Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation; Nina Otero-Warren, a leader in New Mexico’s suffrage movement; and Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood.

That these women’s names will soon be in our hands and in front of our faces should give us joy. It should also cause us to pause and think about why many people still don’t know their stories and what women we should have learned about but haven’t.

“If you were painting a picture, you wouldn’t just paint it with one color and expect it to tell the whole story,” Prasidha says on that night we talk. “You would use different paint colors and paint brushes. Without that, the picture is incomplete. And that’s what kids are learning, and they come out and think the world is just blue. I want them to have the whole story.”

Prasidha is a first-generation Indian American and says those comments she saw online in 2020 about taking away women’s right to vote made her think about what she had learned in her history classes about women. She, like most people, had been taught about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony. But she couldn’t recall learning about what women did during the Civil War or during other notable periods.

She told her parents she wanted to start an organization that would focus on getting those stories told. From that conversation grew WEAR (Women for Education, Advocacy and Rights), a nonprofit with an executive board made up entirely of students.

One of Prasidha’s first actions through the organization was to create a petition calling on Fairfax Schools to integrate women’s history into elementary and middle school curriculum. She says she wanted to gauge support of that effort. The petition drew more than 5,000 signatures.

Prasidha recalls the day she was at home, engaged in virtual learning, and an email caused her to let out an excited yell. She says it was from March saying she wanted to meet and talk about a possible collaboration between the school system and WEAR.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” March says of her first encounter with Prasidha, who is a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology. “When I had my first virtual meeting with Prasidha, I realized she has a deep knowledge of history. She went on about Sybil Ludington for probably 30 minutes. It was pretty impressive. And it was exciting for me to connect with a student who was on fire for just and equitable access to learning experiences that tell a complete story.”

Marsh says everyone benefits when educators take seriously the type of questions Prasidha and WEAR are raising: “What if we broaden the story? What if we rethink whose lives and contributions are deemed worthy of study in our classrooms and textbooks?”

“I think students have a better chance of seeing their power to shape our systems and institutions when they encounter lots of different examples of what that can look like, examples of diverse people as the doers and movers of history,” March says. “It would be a shame if students came away from their K-12 education thinking they have to become a president or a general if they want to make a difference in the world.”

March says she, her colleague Jen Brown and three social studies teachers met with Prasidha weekly at one point to work on the Civil War material that is offered to sixth-grade teachers. Prasidha was also invited in August to speak to educators. Her presentation was titled, “Expanding and Transforming Women’s History for K-12.”

Brown recalls Prasidha telling participants about Susie King Taylor, who was born into slavery and attended school in secret. At 14, she became the first black teacher to openly educate African Americans in Georgia, and she later served as a nurse for the Union army during the Civil War.

“I had never heard of Susie King Taylor, before Prasidha introduced me to her, and was so grateful for the opportunity to learn about her and other women who did extraordinary things,” Brown says.

Prasidha has been focused on the past, but she is also looking toward the future. She hopes to see other school systems expand their curriculum to include more stories of remarkable women.

She knows well why their names need to appear on more than quarters, and she’s only 16.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here