The Lessons in Herstory app shines a light on the untold stories of women in history and combats gender inequality in textbooks.

Stories are a powerful tool that shape the growing identities of children. It’s important for kids to learn stories that reflect the diversity of humanity because what kids see, they believe they can be. Yet history is often a record told from a single perspective, which is traditionally white and male. It follows that the stories of men dominate the historical narrative, making up 89 percent of US history textbooks. So where are the stories of women who changed the world? Where are the stories from people of color?

This lack of diversity sparked the creation of an innovative app, Lessons in Herstory. Championed by Daughters of the Evolution, the app was developed this year by a small creative team at Goodby Silverstein, including Brand Strategist Shaza Elsheshtawy, Account Director Melissa Buck, Copywriter Trevor Joplin, and Art Director Eleanor Rask. Herstory empowers students of all genders with a tool to illuminate the often unheard stories of important women throughout history. 

To ensure the app’s mindfulness and historical accuracy they partnered with Rad American Women A-Z author Kate Schatz, who provided an expert perspective and insights on every featured story. Creating change can be hard, but, “If it were easy to uproot and reverse the bias and sexism we’ve grown up with, someone would have already done it,” Rask admitted. The team’s hard work has paid off: Herstory won two gold lions this year at Cannes in the mobile category. Lessons in Herstory is one small piece of a larger societal puzzle but it’s at the forefront of the digital revolution, rewriting history and empowering young women worldwide.

What is the Lessons in Herstory app?

Shaza Elsheshtawy: It’s a tool that helps bring the stories of those who have been traditionally left out of mainstream historical narratives to the forefront. At its core, Herstory is a way to be inclusive of marginalized voices, experiences, and stories. Illuminating women’s stories in history is just the beginning for Lessons in Herstory. Ultimately, as a tool, Herstory has the potential to grow and include more stories that have been left out of history, stories from underrepresented races, non-gender conforming stories, non-heteronormative stories, etc. 

 

How did Herstory begin? 

Elsheshtawy: The story behind Herstory begins with Daughters of the Evolution, an organization founded by our Chief Creative Officer Margaret Johnson and a board of young girls. Daughters of the Evolution champions the voices and ambitions of the next generation of female leaders so that they can build the world they want to thrive in. Feeling the unrelenting persistence of gender inequality in society, they came to Goodby Silverstein and Partners with the hope of finding a solution…before it manifests in career glass ceilings, pay gaps, and every other effect of systemic gender inequality you can think of.

We asked ourselves: when does inequality begin? When are our identities most vulnerable? When do they start to take shape and take hold? Psychoanalysts (particularly Erik Erikson with his theory of developmental stages) point to adolescence; it’s when we first ask ourselves, “What will I be when I grow up?” and start to look for heroes and mentors to model ourselves after.

We unearthed the troubling data that less than 11 percent of history textbook references are about women; the consequences of that gender-representation imbalance are severe. Myra and David Sadker, the authors of Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, who were quoted in this Rutgers University study put it well: “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.” 

But one major constraint is that we would have to convince textbook companies to rewrite, reprint and redistribute textbooks across America. We needed a creative solution that could bring our objective to life without physically changing textbooks. That’s when the idea for the app Lessons in Herstory was born.

From there, our GS&P Labs team developed the Lessons in Herstory AR app in house, and we worked closely with New York Times bestselling author and feminist historian Kate Schatz to ensure historical accuracy and diversity as our creative team and designer created the content. 

 

What was the development process of Herstory? 

Elsheshtawy: Even though [teachers] have flexibility in planning their curricula (since the humanities aren’t federally mandated curricula, like you see in STEM subjects) they are overworked and cobbling together different resources and are craving one place they can trust to bring in different perspectives and diversify what their students are exposed to. That was a major “aha!” moment for me that this app has the true potential to be in classrooms across the country (and, as we saw after the launch, it’s already been adopted by teachers in seven states across the US).

Trevor Joplin: We dove deep into the textbooks and contextualized ourselves with the time period, as well as the tone of the material in general. With [help from Schatz], we uncovered hundreds of remarkable stories about the forgotten women in history, the majority of which are never mentioned in textbooks. Once we had the stories, we put our creative hats back on and applied an intimate, first-person tone to each of our stories—a stark juxtaposition to the impersonal, third-person point of view found in pretty much every textbook.

Once the stories were written, we designed a unique illustration for each story that would pop off the page and would be sure to stand out in any textbook. After that, we enlisted the expertise of our in-house innovation team to put everything together and start developing the Lessons in Herstory app. The entire process took about six months.

We set the launch date for March 2019, which is Women’s History Month. We felt like that was the perfect time to reach the most people, so we made it happen.

What did you learn from creating Herstory?

Elsheshtawy: Aside from learning that Miami was founded by force of nature Julia Tuttle (and all the other women we got to shine a light on in Lessons in Herstory), I learned and experienced the power of true collaboration. Where each person and their unique perspective fully mattered and truly shaped the course of the idea. 

The diversity of perspective each of us brought to the table mirrored the philosophical commitment we had in creating this tool in the first place: that diversity makes the world a better place. That in itself also embodies an effect we wanted Lessons in Herstory to have for kids: To help them feel like they matter, and ultimately that they are crucial to the development of our world. In a political and ecological climate where it’s easy to feel powerless, it’s important to remind ourselves that we do truly matter, and we can truly make a real positive difference. 

Melissa Buck: The gender power imbalance starts so early in our lives. By the time we’re adults and trying to solve the problem, the imbalance has already taken root. When I started working on the project, I talked about it with my 9-year-old niece. She was so excited about what we were doing, and I realized the impact that this app could have on students and their identity formation. There’s only so much that we as adults can do to address the problem, but the young people that use this app today are the ones that have the real power to create a better world.

Joplin: The part that stood out most to us was how difficult it is to find stories about women in history. We quickly realized that the gender gap so prevalent in history textbooks wasn’t a direct result of poor planning or biased opinions from the textbook writers. Instead, it was an issue that had been directly ingrained in society for hundreds of years. Realizing this was a driving force for us, and it turned our “should” into a “must.”

 

What excites you about the future of Herstory?

Elsheshtawy: Herstory can be a tool, and true ally, for teachers and students across the country. And it could totally be expanded to other disciplines, like science (have you ever heard of June Lindsey, whose work directly led to the discovery of DNA’s double helix?!).

Even more, it could be expanded to anywhere in society where the stories and achievements of men tend to dominate. Think about national monuments, national named holidays, sports. I get really inspired imagining a world where previously unknown powerful stories can get their spotlight, too.

Buck: The response we’ve seen to the project has been extraordinary—we received testimonials from students and teachers that are implementing it into their curriculum, and the passion around what we’re doing is tangible. We created Herstory to highlight the gender gap in history books, but the potential for where it can go is limitless. 

Rask: This technology is extremely scalable, meaning we can change any book and apply the same technology to other educational platforms. In the future, it would be awesome to cover different social issues, like race or LGBTQIA rights. There’s a lot of problems out there that this app can help tackle, and we’re excited to see what’s next. 

 

What would your younger self think about the work you’ve done with Herstory?

Elsheshtawy: I’d be in total awe of my bravery to speak up. I’d also feel really empowered by the knowledge that the barriers that existed for me as a kid growing up (from family constraints to academic constraints) didn’t end up holding me back or determining my future. There’s power in rebelling against the constraints set for us, pushing at the boundaries of whatever boxes we are placed in, and subverting (possibly low) expectations…. I’d like to think my younger self would know that pushing against those constraints worked out in the end. 

 

What needs to happen to take Herstory to the next level? 

Elsheshtawy: At this stage, it’s pure exposure. I’d love school districts across the country to adopt it (and announce that adoption). 

Buck: If I had one wish for Herstory, it’d be to find a partner that has access to millions of students so that we could expand Lessons in Herstory to include more stories and to be accessible to the masses.

 

Download the app and visit www.lessonsinherstory.com to try it out! 


Grace Boyle is a writer for Rebel Girls, where she focuses on interviewing contemporary feminist artists and researching historical feminist leaders. Previously, she led the writing and content team at MentorBox as executive writer and editor, where she created educational content for world-class experts and thought leaders including New York Times bestsellers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grace studied writing at the Ezra Pound Center for Literature and learned to interview at the Nationally Acclaimed Public Radio show New Dimensions Radio. She regularly consults with podcasts and businesses on brand narrative and communication strategy. Grace lives by the ocean in San Francisco and begins each day with a cup of tea and a text to her mom. You can find Grace on LinkedIn and Instagram.