Complicating Women’s History: Reflections on the Final Workshop

In this post, project organiser Bridget Lockyer reflects on the final session of Moving Beyond Boundaries at Huntington School.

In the fifth and final session at Huntington School we wanted to do more than just recap what the students had learnt over the last few weeks and ask for their feedback. We wanted to directly tackle the prevailing view from the first session: that the general absence of women’s history in the curriculum was not deliberate, but merely a reflection of women’s minor role in history. The general consensus was that women in the past had been so oppressed that they were completely prevented from taking part in public life and were largely absent from what the students regarded as ‘important’ historical events. This session’s focus was to show them how some of what they had learnt in the three workshops had not only challenged this view, but had asked them to rethink what ‘important’ meant.

The first activity evoked a theme which we had explored in-depth over the last five weeks: the ideal vs the reality. We showed students a ‘stereotypical’ image of women from certain periods in history e.g. the 1950s housewife or the medieval courtly lady, and contrasted it with some alternatives e.g. a migrant factory worker or a female blacksmith. This short activity was designed to remind students that alternative histories of women are not difficult to find if you look for them and that it is important to look at where stereotypes come from and try to go beyond them.

Next, we asked students to work in groups to produce a poster summarising some of the things they had learnt over the course of the project, including five things they were most surprised and most interested to learn. This was a great way of seeing what the students remembered, and what they had valued the most.

The students'posters

The students’ posters

Similar themes emerged from the posters which the students presented in groups. The students were surprised to find out about women’s role in political reform and protest in the Georgian era. The figure of the ‘witch’, discussed in both the first and second workshops, had obviously resonated with the students, and they were interested to learn how the witch stereotype had emerged. The medieval workshop had also had a big impact, largely because the students had done so little medieval history before, so knowing more about women’s lives in this period was particularly illuminating. The students were also interested to find more about migration in the 20th century and the experiences of women specifically and how they differed from men’s.

For our next activity we gave the students a quick quiz which contrasted the rights and status of British men and women. This task was designed to address the perception that the lives and experiences of most women and most men were fundamentally different. We wanted to highlight that, certainly in legal terms, most men were also excluded from the political and social spheres. For example, we asked the students to tell us when most men got the vote (1918) and when most women got the vote (1928) and when compulsory education was introduced for boys (1870) and for girls (1870). The students appeared to respond well to this, recognising that women and men are not homogenous groups and that when we talk about ‘important’ figures in history, we are usually talking about a group of very elite men.

Following on from this we asked students to create a timeline to illustrate the changing status of women in Britain over the last two millennia. The timelines were not intended to be an accurate depiction of women’s ‘progress’ in history but were a tool to illustrate that women’s status had fluctuated over time. We were impressed that the students did not map out a completely linear, upwards progression, and instead used what they had learnt in the workshops to present a more complicated picture.

Students working on their timelines

Students working on their timelines

The final activities brought the students full circle back to our first session. We played them a short video, which recapped each session’s themes, but also included audio clips of some their discussions. Once they had got over the initial embarrassment of listening to themselves talk, this was a really effective method of reminding them about what they had thought at the start and gave them space to reflect on whether or not they had changed their minds. This was also a way of showing them how much we had valued their contributions throughout the project.

We then asked them fill out a questionnaire, which asked them what they found most interesting about the project and what could be improved. It also asked them whether the project changed their minds about women’s role in history and how they thought women’s history could be better integrated into the curriculum. The feedback from these questionnaires was overwhelmingly positive, with most of the students stating that the project had changed their minds about women’s history:

‘Women’s role was much larger than I thought’

‘I thought they played a more passive role, they had more rights than I originally thought’

‘I thought women were passive victims throughout history so seeing they did play an active role was encouraging’

‘I have become aware that women played a more political role than I thought’

‘I found out a lot more about women that they are not explicitly recognised for in the curriculum’

The session culminated in a group discussion about theses responses, with a particular focus on the question of how to better integrate women’s history into the curriculum. The students had diverse views about this but there was a general sense that women’s history should not be bolted on, but should be part of mainstream history:

‘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’

‘Less focus on individuals, if you do that it kind of highlights the fact that their women. You should do their effect on events where it’s appropriate’

‘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’

‘You should focus on women throughout the whole of history not just specific things like the suffragettes’

The students also had some ideas about why they were not taught women’s history:

‘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’

‘I think that’s because we don’t do social history, that’s why we don’t know about it….I think it would be nice to mix it up a bit and have more social history, as it’s more relatable’

The students still felt it was useful to learn about ‘important’ historical events, but they were also more interested and open to learning about the ordinary aspects of people’s lives. The final remark of one student was that she had ‘learnt loads more about the daily lives of women throughout history’. I think this was the real strength of the workshops, which succeeded in showing both the bizarre and mundane, emphasising both the diversity of women’s experiences as well as the commonalities.

We really enjoyed working with this bright and engaged group of students, hearing their thoughts and ideas. They certainly gave us a lot to think about as the project goes forward into the next stages.

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