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The Student Newspaper of Jackson-Reed High School

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A look into the lack of female voices in English II

Jackson-Reed prides itself on its diversity, both in its student body and curriculum. However, there is a serious failure to showcase female voices in English classes. This is most apparent in the English II curriculum, in which none of the books are written by women, about women, or include any strong female characters. 

Sophomore students read The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini, Night by Elie Wiesel, and Hamlet by William Shakespeare. They follow two young boys growing up in Harlem and Baltimore, a young man in the Vietnam War, two boys coming of age in 1970s Afghanistan, a moving account of the Holocaust, and a young man contemplating truth, death, and revenge in medieval Denmark. These books successfully share diverse stories and alternative points of view. However, there is a total lack of any female authors or well-rounded female characters in them. 

The few female characters tend to be written as weak, dependent, or crazy, and have no driving purpose. In The Things They Carried, the singular female character that plays an active role in the story is a soldier’s girlfriend who comes to Vietnam as a naïve girl and transitions into a hysterical woman that runs off into the Vietnamese wilderness. In both The Other Wes Moore and The Kite Runner, the only women are the main characters’ family members, girlfriends, or wives. Sophomore Maria Joyce-Johnson noted, “I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the books we’ve read this year but I’ve found myself wondering about the total lack of a strong female character in them.” These novels misrepresent women and lean into harmful stereotypes. 

Many female students feel the impact. Sophomore Riley MacClellan said, “I’d like to read a book in class where women are more than just plot devices.” Sophomore Sage Deora added that “the ways they portray women make me feel uncomfortable.” Junior Fletcher Lyttleton remarked, “My learning was very male focused, and a lot of the times I didn’t get to see my own perspective, so I couldn’t relate to anything we were doing in class.” All students should be able to see themselves in the literature they read and harmful depictions disadvantage education. 

The books are mostly chosen by DCPS, with The Other Wes Moore, Night, and Hamlet all being a part of the DCPS required 10th grade English curriculum. However, to make JR English classes advanced, Jackson-Reed adds The Things They Carried and The Kite Runner. The 10th grade English curriculum follows a world studies theme, and each book takes on a different area of the world and set of experiences that students aren’t normally exposed to, except for The Other Wes Moore, which is set in Baltimore. 

“Reading is a way of understanding people that are different from you and I think that’s one of the reasons why it is important to have a diverse group of [books], because it’s important to understand diverse perspectives other than your own and gain a window of understanding into other peoples experiences,” English teacher Caroline Szakats said.

A main factor in deciding which books are added by JR is what is available. “We are limited by what we have and a lot of the texts that we have in our bookroom are the DCPS texts and a lot of those texts are written by men,” said Szakats. English Department Chair Joseph Welch noted “it becomes an equity issue if we’re asking students to buy their own books, or a challenge just for us to get the books.” In order to add a book to the Jackson-Reed curriculum, the department would need to get PTSO funding to purchase the new copies.

The lack of female voices and representation in the English II curriculum is concerning and harmful to the way students see themselves and their peers. During Women’s History Month, it is especially important to honor women by ensuring we read literature that focuses on female leaders and positive representation.

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Alice Patterson, Junior Editor
Clara Doyle, Junior Editor
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