By Ruth Mather
Historical writing always has some effect on us. It may reinforce passivity; it may activate us. In any case, the historian cannot choose to be neutral; [s]he writes on a moving train.
So begins Howard Zinn’s essay on radical histories, in which he argues for history writing which encourages empathy across time and place, with the aim of promoting social justice in the present. Historians are not neutral, nor are history curricula: the ways in which we interpret the past informs how we think of the present. I write this piece in a week in which the Times Higher Educational Supplement published an article linking the lack of black history students to the under-representation of black people in the history curriculum, following discussions at the History Matters Workshop in London.This comes hot on the heels of a speech by Michelle Obama, in which she called upon museums to engage young black people by representing their histories, making clear ‘that their story is part of the American story, and that they deserve to be seen’. As I write, more than 8,000 people have viewed an article in The Conversation which calls for academics to take university curricula back from ‘dead white men’. Students themselves are increasingly challenging the representational dominance of white, straight, cis-gendered and able-bodied men in the educational environment, through campaigns such as ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ and ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’ There is an evident and urgent need to re-examine what is taught in our schools and universities and why, and to recognise the impact curriculum decisions have upon our students. This paper suggests one possible means of interrogating curriculum bias in a school setting, and discusses the benefits to both students and educators of doing so.
In 2014, I acted as a facilitator on the Teaching Women’s History project, organised by Bridget Lockyer and Abigail Tazzyman of the University of York. The project was created in response to a growing concern about the way in which women’s history was side-lined in mainstream discourse, initially triggered in a session on women’s history with students involved in the University of York’s Feminist Society, during which students complained that they had not been offered the opportunity to learn about these histories at school or college. It was given a sense of urgency by the fierce debates around the revised history curriculum proposed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2013, and the equally contentious campaign for a woman to remain represented on British banknotes following the decision to replace Elizabeth Fry’s image with that of Winston Churchill. These issues revealed that women’s history was at best often ignored, and at worst attempts to assert its importance were met with violent misogyny.
The project organisers collaborated with local schools to arrange a series of weekly two-hour sessions on the theme of women’s history for students working towards their A-levels. The first session was an opportunity to gauge the students’ existing knowledge and attitudes towards women’s history. With a few exceptions, including the Queens of England, the suffragettes, and a few famous writers, there had been little coverage of women in history lessons, and what existed tended to be unrepresentative of women’s wider experience. We asked students why they thought the curriculum had been designed in this way, which was something most students hadn’t really thought about before. They felt that the curriculum had emerged organically from the ‘big events’ of history, by which they usually meant war, politics and scientific discovery. They suggested that women had little opportunity to participate in these events, and therefore, it was constraints on women’s actions in the past which had determined the way women appear on the curriculum today. The majority of the students were also resistant to the idea that women’s history should be ‘shoe-horned’ in, if it did not fit with the parts of history they felt were most important. Returning to the banknotes debate, a number of students argued that Jane Austen was not as important historically as Charles Darwin, whose image hers will replace on the ten pound note. However, a minority of students contested this, suggesting that women’s achievements perhaps merited more celebration than those of more privileged men who had experienced fewer obstacles to success. One student also raised the issue of curriculum bias, arguing that as the curriculum was largely designed by men it reflected their concerns and interests.
Having given students space to discuss their ideas and opinions in the first session, the following three content-based lessons aimed to present a more detailed and nuanced picture of women’s experiences in the past. These lessons were designed by project facilitators around their own academic areas of expertise. Throughout, we aimed to highlight the intersectionality of these experiences, demonstrating that women’s roles were influenced not just by gender but by other factors such as class and ethnicity. We also attempted to relate past to present, so that students could understand the relevance of history in their own lives. For example, in the lesson on Georgian women, we encouraged students to draw parallels between eighteenth-century conduct manuals and the advice doled out by women’s magazines today. In doing so, we sought to expose the socially-constructed nature of gender roles, and the potential for women to adapt or evade attempts to control their behaviour.
In the final session, we evaluated the student’s experiences of the project. As with other sessions, we included various activities in which the idea of women’s history as diverse and non-linear was reinforced. Alongside this challenge to the Whiggish notion of continuous positive progress towards equality, we also emphasised the lack of a homogenous experience among men, stressing the struggle of working-class men to gain the vote. Again, this was an attempt to encourage students to think about factors that work alongside gender to generate inequalities in power. At the end of this session, the students worked in groups to produce posters of the elements of the lessons which they had found most interesting or surprising. Particularly popular topics included women’s work and political activity, the ways in which stereotypes affect our perceptions of history, and the evidence for same-sex relationships in the past. Students enjoyed having their expectations of how women had behaved in the past challenged, and were surprised by the variety of sources available for studying women’s history. On one of the feedback forms, a student told us:
‘I thought before this that the reason women weren’t really talked about was because nothing was really recorded about them because it was mainly men doing the recording, but having seen this and see how much has actually been recorded about women I find it quite surprising that we don’t learn more about them’.
The students also had plenty of ideas about how the curriculum could be altered to better represent women. Overall, there seemed to be a desire for more women’s history to be taught, though whether this should be integrated or highlighted was a matter of debate. One student told us they wanted:
‘More focus on individuals in Science and English etc. because you usually only hear about men. It should be put in equally alongside men, it shouldn’t be separate.’
While another felt that there should be:
‘Less focus on individuals, if you do that it kind of highlights the fact that they’re women. You should do their effect on events where it’s appropriate.’
In general, students wanted a more nuanced presentation of history, which took account of the various differentiating categories that could affect the experiences of both men and women. They felt that this would help create a more inclusive curriculum, and prevent women being portrayed as ‘other’. As one student told us:
‘If you’re teaching about it just because their women you are reinforcing the separation from male history which isn’t what you want to do, you want to integrate it together.’
Another was concerned that women were only mentioned in certain topics, particularly the suffragettes, rather than there being an analysis of gender throughout their studies.Though some of the students retained the idea that ‘big events’ history was most important, there was also a suggestion from some students that more social history on the curriculum might facilitate the presentation of more complex and integrated stories.
Of course, the way in which the project worked was to some extent informed by the schools and students we worked with. Our group of about 25 students was mixed gender, but predominantly white British, middle-class, and visibly able-bodied, so I wonder how the sessions might have been received differently by other groups where this was not the case. However, a genuine desire for more nuanced, diverse histories was evident among the students we worked with. They wanted histories which helped them to understand the world around them. The historical actors we discussed did not need to look, act or think like the students themselves, but they did need to be represented as fully rounded human beings, rather than one-dimensional characters. For example, one student told us that:
‘I thought women were passive victims throughout history, so seeing they did play an active role was encouraging.’
This chimes with discussions at the History Matters workshop for histories of black people that extend beyond the history of slavery. It is crucial to recognise oppression where it existed, and often still does exist, but to represent any historical group wholly in terms of their victimhood is to place barriers in the way of human empathy. To fully understand oppression, students need to understand what marginalised groups have achieved within and outside of that context, what has been gained and lost, and how the oppressed resist and subvert powers used against them. This proved encouraging for the students on our project because it offered a tradition in which to understand feminist activism today; an awareness that it was not ever thus and need not remain so. To challenge a white, heteronormative, ableist and sexist curriculum is not to demand the wholesale destruction of its celebrated canon, but to question the power structures which place some figures within this canon while excluding others. It is to encourage broad-minded critical thinking among students, something which should be at the core of what we do as educators.
Though Teaching Women’s History was necessarily limited in scope, to me it demonstrated the possibilities for committed academics seeking to challenge curriculum bias and encourage radical changes within it. With teachers facing increasing pressures on their time for curriculum planning, collaborations between schools and universities can benefit both parties. Students have the opportunity to learn from experts at the cutting edge in their field, while academics have the opportunity to present their work in new ways and to gain new perspectives on their research. Considering Teaching Women’s History in the context of a wider movement for more inclusive curricula in both schools and universities has forced me to reflect on my wider teaching and learning. It has exposed gaps in my own knowledge which might otherwise have remained unquestioned. Internet communication, community history, and the Open Access and impact agendas all offer opportunities for academics to expose and redress the simplistic and biased historical narratives which can otherwise be allowed to dominate curricula. In turn, the time and resources dedicated to the wider dissemination of research must be properly recognised and compensated, and the historical profession itself must become more inclusive. Interrogating curriculum bias is a big challenge, but offers enormous rewards in the form of more engaged and critically-minded students who can avoid mindlessly reproducing inequalities in the next generation. The Teaching Women’s History project is just one small step in this much greater radical movement.
Ruth Mather is a PhD candidate in the School of History/ Centre for Studies of Home at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research interests include gender, popular politics, material culture and the home in eighteenth/nineteenth century England, and she is currently working on a thesis provisionally titled ‘Power and Identity in English working-class homes, c.1790-1820.’ She is passionate about engaging wider audiences in historical research, and enjoys working with museums as well as with researchers from different disciplines and those outside academia. She tweets from @ruth_mather, occasionally blogs at ruthmather.wordpress.com, and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please take a look at the other articles in our Radical History Graduate Online Symposium:
What is Radical History By Tank Green, Diarmaid Kelliher and Luca Lapolla