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Placing women’s history front and centre

Women’s history is on the rise, but how is this reflected in our schools? We ask teachers about the role of women’s history in the classroom, especially for Women’s History Month.

Women’s history has been enjoying some much-deserved, and well-overdue, limelight these last few years.

The Suffragettes’ struggle was brought to the big screen in the 2015 star-studded movie The Suffragette. The Suffragist Millicent Fawcett made headlines (again) when hers became the first female statue in London’s Parliament Square in April 2018.

Caroline Criado Perez, the writer and activist who campaigned for the statue, also successfully led a campaign that resulted in Jane Austen gracing the British £10 note the year before. The National Trust even unearthed the untold stories of women in their historic sites as part of their year-long programme, Women and Power, in 2018. While, more recently, the award-winning movie The Favourite shined a light on the immense influence and power of women in the 18th century court of Queen Anne.

Safe to say, it’s an exciting time for women’s history. Women’s contributions to history are consciously being sought after, and it feels like history’s public image is finally on its way to shaking off its inherent masculinity. However, is this progression reflected within the classroom?

Women’s history in the National Curriculum

Look at the National Curriculum in England and you’ll see that women are only mentioned once in the key stage three history programme of study – unsurprisingly in ‘women’s suffrage’. Fortunately, while it’s optional, many schools seem to choose to teach it.

“Women’s suffrage is commonly taught in schools”, says British history teacher Jackie Teale, adding, “It’s the only sequence of lessons that I can think of that focuses primarily on women.”

However, we’d be wrong to jump to the assumption that just because the term ‘women’ is only named once in the study programme that women’s history is wholly excluded in all other topics. Elsewhere in the programme, ‘Christendom, the importance of religion and the Crusades’ and ‘Ireland and Home Rule’, for example, could both easily include the female experience without being blatantly labelled ‘women’s history’.

In fact, some people think the category of women’s history – and even Women’s History Month – is problematic. By separating women’s experiences into just one category of history are we novelising something that should instead be dispersed organically throughout all historical categories, all year round?

With that in mind, perhaps the lack of specifically ‘female’ history in the National Curriculum isn’t a bad thing.

“I’m not sure that most students, particularly at key stage three, would recognise women’s history as anything other than history”, Teale points out. “Women’s history could be fitted within any of the programmes of study on the curriculum.”

Moreover, when Adam MacKinnon, Head of History at Cranmore School in Surrey, asked his male year-6 students their thoughts around studying the Tudor queens Mary I and Elizabeth I, he summarises, “they said they hadn’t really thought about it from the point of view that they were women, but more that they were the ruling monarchs at that particular time.”

So perhaps, excluding the label ‘women’s history’ can itself be beneficial within schools. Indeed, asking teachers which female characters are most commonly covered in the classroom, they threw out a varied list from across the centuries, including Boudicca, the Tudor queens, Queen Victoria, Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, as well as key Suffrage activists and Rosa Parks.

MacKinnon made a point of stating that, “women like Boudicca, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth I are discussed in our lessons in the context of their role rather than specifically their gender.”

Even in the USA, Sheila Mehta, who teaches modern US history to 16-17 year olds in Round Rock, Texas, told us that her school supports her in teaching what she calls “inclusive history”. She explained, “[we] include female voices from the eras, movements, events we study to be as comprehensive as possible.”

Teaching under pressure

Teachers are enthusiastically incorporating women’s voices and experiences wherever possible. That, however, reveals a significant problem in teaching women’s history in schools. The responsibility and drive to teach our students about women’s experiences in history seems to be coming from the teachers themselves rather than the examination boards, who have the power to give women’s history a core role.

By leaving it to the teachers to consciously choose to include female experiences and contributions in class, women’s history is being treated as ‘other’ – a novelty addition to the masculine historical ‘norm’.

“It is quite male-centric”, claims Mehta, commenting on the Texas curriculum for modern US history. “While not terribly surprising with the culture of the state, it also misguides students who feel as if women just stood on the side-lines of history”.

Back in the UK, this sentiment is echoed by Teale, who states, “It’s unlikely that if a teacher has a weak knowledge of a particular time period that they will be able to plan and teach lessons with women and other marginalised groups fully integrated into the picture.”

This leads onto another risk of leaving the inclusion of women on the history teachers themselves. It’s still widely reported that teachers are working longer hours, in increasingly unsupportive environments – all in a sea of budget cuts. Almost a third of education professionals work more than 51 hours a week and the Education Support Partnership saw a 35 per cent increase in teachers calling their emotional support helpline last year.

Teachers are under a lot of pressure. And, as with anything in life, pressure brings inflexibility. When teachers are battling with time limitations and looming deadlines they will likely, and understandably, stick to the well-worn path rather than try to create new tracks – opting for a more male-centric traditional approach to history over a more female-inclusive one.

Within US and UK popular history, women have long been treated as a minority group, when they actually make up more than half the population. While it is fantastic to see enthusiastic teachers incorporating alternative histories into their lesson plans, it is too risky to leave that heavy (but necessary) responsibility on teachers, who are already battling time and curriculum pressures.

So perhaps, if we want women’s history to continue to rise both outside and inside the classroom, the Department for Education and exam boards need to make more of a conscious effort to bring the female experience into the curriculum. That way history’s women can be presented in our school books as well as our cinema screens.

With thanks to Jackie Teale, Sheila Mehta, and Cranmore School for their contributions.

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