Bridget Lockyer

As the new history curriculum comes into effect this September, now is the time to rethink how women’s history is taught

‘They’re not on it because they didn’t do anything important’ was the response of one student when discussing why so few women were represented on their school curriculum. This student was one of a group of Year 12s taking part in a new project which focuses on how women’s history is taught in secondary schools.

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and is organised by Abigail Tazzyman and me, PhD students from the University of York. Collaborating with three York schools: Huntington, Fulford and Bootham, we have worked to gauge students’ perceptions of women’s history, deliver workshops on some less conventional aspects of women’s history and hold discussions with history teachers. The purpose of the project is to open up a new dialogue about the inclusion of women’s history in schools, find out what challenges students and teachers face and ask what changes can be made.

Questions about which historical periods, events and people are significant enough to be taught in schools have surfaced recently in debates around the new national history curriculum, which will be rolled out this September.

Michael Gove’s initial draft of the history curriculum was heavily criticised for making too much of Britain’s imperial past, for being too Anglo-centric, too white and too male (for example, there was particular furore over the proposed exclusion of Mary Seacole).

The curriculum has since been altered and the most controversial elements have been removed. As it stands, the change has not been too dramatic. There is more of a chronological focus, moving away from the thematic approach that has dominated in previous years. It is likely that most history departments, with little time to prepare and no further resources, will, with some adjustments, carry on as before.

We see the changes to the curriculum and the discussions that they initiated as an opportunity to rethink the way women’s history is presented to students. After all, women’s history is not completely absent on the curriculum. Yet the way it appears can make it seem perfunctory and separate from the mainstream. More needs to be done to quash the prevailing narrative that the history of the last few millennia is predominantly the history of men and men’s actions.

Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note
Elizabeth Fry on the £5 note

This narrative was visible during recent debates about the representation of women on British banknotes, after Elizabeth Fry was replaced by Winston Churchill on the five pound note. The subsequent campaign was met with resistance. People were asking why it was so important to have a woman depicted on our banknotes and whether there was a woman whose achievements were significant enough to occupy this prestigious role.

The York students did not see the under-representation of women in their history lessons as a deliberate omission. From the students’ perspective, the exclusion of women on the curriculum was just a consequence of them being prevented from doing anything noteworthy in the past. They could not learn about a history which never existed in the first place. They had obviously picked up on the tokenism that often accompanies the teaching of women’s history and felt that they should not be ‘forced’ to learn about women, when, as they argued, their contribution to the making of Britain (and the world) was so limited.

We tried to tackle these assumptions head on through our workshops. Led by a group of postgraduates, these workshops revealed that women had more opportunities to ‘make history’ than the students had previously thought. One prominent example was the participation of working-class women in political protest, such as the reform movement of the early 19th century. Students were surprised to learn that women were politically active before the campaigns for women’s suffrage. The workshops excelled not only in emphasising the extraordinary but the mundane too, using a variety of primary sources to consider the daily lives of ordinary women.

By the end of the workshops the students were asking why, if the sources were there, they did not learn more about women? They called for the better integration of women’s history within the curriculum, and a continued focus on women throughout history instead of just in specific periods e.g. the suffragettes or women’s role in First and Second World Wars.

Talking to history teachers, we saw a definite commitment to teaching women’s history but teachers did admit that they often felt they had to ‘crowbar in’ women’s history rather than letting it emerge more organically. They had different views as to the impact of the new curriculum on the inclusion of women. For some, the new curriculum offered history departments more freedom and the chronological focus gave them additional room to explore more aspects of women’s history. Others felt that the shift away from the thematic approach was going to make it more difficult to include the experiences of women.

Teaching Women's History

In light of these issues, we have created a website for history teachers, which includes the lesson plans and sources used in the workshops and links to other resources on women’s history. The website is a small contribution, but our whole ethos is about making small yet significant changes. We are not advocating a radical overhaul.

Instead, we want to encourage teachers at all levels to teach women’s history, not as something separate, but as something ordinary. We found that we were able to change students’ minds once it was presented differently and once they had access to the right knowledge and resources.

As schools begin to implement the new curriculum, now is the time to reinvigorate the teaching of women’s history. The new curriculum does have its faults, and there is the danger that the ‘freedom’ it purports to offer might persuade teachers, already under pressure and without any additional resources, to stick to the status quo. Yet we found that history teachers were open to change, willing to engage with new topics and new angles and on the constant look out for new material. We hope that the flexibility of the new curriculum can be harnessed for good, and used to integrate women’s history more effectively.


Bridget Lockyer is currently finishing a PhD at the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York. This post was originally published here

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