Why Women’s History?

Moving Beyond Boundaries: Student Perspective

In this post, sixth-form student Katherine Holmes shares her thoughts on the Moving Beyond Boundaries project and women’s history.

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Students were surprised to learn about women’s active role in political reform in the Georgian era. 1819 ©Trustees of the British Museum

The women’s history project during our Personal Development Programme every week has been absolutely brilliant in opening our eyes to such a significant (but mainly unspoken) part of our country’s (and the world’s) history. Our perceptions on the role of women in history is primarily based on stereotypes and uneducated inferences that women have been merely passive witnesses in the building of our current society, and it was only men who really made any impact. A lot of us aim to excuse this by relying on the idea that women had limited opportunity. However, the project has taught us that although this is partly true, women did a lot more than we first assumed. These false assumptions can be argued to be a result of how women are represented on the curriculum, with us knowing lots about influential kings, prime ministers, archbishops, male scientists and authors etc. but little about not only influential women as individuals (e.g. Mary Seacole, Marie Curie etc.), but of the gender as a whole. We were extremely surprised to learn of the Georgian political protesters, as the only thing we are taught about the role of women in politics is the movement of women’s suffrage in the early 1900s, and even then this topic is separated and highlighted as an exception and is only about their fight for equality, not the influence they have had throughout history and how they helped shape society into what it is today. Thank you so much for such a great opportunity to see women’s history from a completely different perspective, and as someone personally wanting to undertake history at university it has provided me with a fantastic experience to talk about on personal statements and interview which is directly relevant to the course.

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.

Constructing Gender in the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Centuries

In this post, facilitator Jessica Haldeman discusses one of the aims of the session on Georgian Women, which drew parallels between the constructions of ideal femininity in this period and today.

Working as a facilitator for the Moving Beyond Boundaries project was definitely one of the biggest highlights in my year so far. It’s been a great chance to share my work, continue the process of developing my own ideas, and enable others to peek into women’s history. Last week, my workshop partner Ruth Mather and I spent a few hours presenting on the topic of Georgian Women and discussed the realities of their lives and experiences. In this post, I’d like to discuss a concept that we introduced to the students: the feminine ideal. By comparing quotations from eighteenth-century conduct books with quips from contemporary articles, we were able to show the students that the notion of what makes a ‘real woman’ still applies to our lives today. By dissecting writing of the past, it allowed the students to question the messages that women are faced with on a daily basis.

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The Georgian Woman: Ideal vs Reality

Far from the glamour of a Jane Austen novel or BBC adaptation, women in the eighteenth century faced social pressures from a wide variety of sources. No matter their social status, women had specific expectations about how to be feminine, what to wear, and even what leisure activities to enjoy. Take this quote from Samuel Richardson, for example:

‘…I would have you remember, my dear that as sure as anything intrepid, free, and in a prudent degree bold, becomes a man, so whatever is soft, tender, and modest, renders your sex amiable. In this one instance we do not prefer our own likeness, and the less you resemble us the more you are sure to charm: For a masculine women is a character as little creditable as becoming.’
Samuel Richardson, Letters from Particular Friends, on the Most Important Occasions, 1741, Letter xc, p.125.

Here, Richardson defines masculine and feminine behaviour. Citing masculinity as “intrepid, free, and bold”, Richardson makes femininity its contrast as something “soft, tender, and modest”. Richardson even addresses the concept of “masculine women”, stating that this type of woman has no credibility or appeal to men.

These messages aren’t unique to the eighteenth century. Today, women are constantly told to be amiable, soft-spoken, and delicate from an incalculable amount of channels. Glossy magazines beckon from our supermarkets, blogs and twitter accounts advertise products in the comfort of our own homes, self-help and beauty books occupy our shelves. Sources and voices have always told women how to act, how to dress, what to think. They did it in the eighteenth century. They do it today.

Participating in this project allowed us to share with the students that they don’t have to bend to expectations that society puts on them. We impressed upon the students that there’s no “recipe” for being feminine or masculine. No amount of stereotypically feminine behaviour, makeup, or clothing will ever take away who you are or add to your worth. By looking at Georgian women and learning about how they navigated the slippery slope of public approval, the students began to identify all of the messages they receive about femininity and how they might be affected by society’s voice.

Jessica Haldeman

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In 2011, I graduated with a BA in English Literature from UCLA. After teaching English for a year, I completed a Master’s Degree at the Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York with a dissertation on the social and theological connections between Baptist and Anglican women writers. I am currently a first year PhD student in the same department, researching Nonconformist women in the Eighteenth Century and representations of the physical body in their writing.

 

What Moving Beyond Boundaries Means For Me

In this post, facilitator Ruth Mather outlines her motivations for taking part in the Moving Beyond Boundaries project.

I was really delighted to be invited take part as a facilitator the Moving Beyond Boundaries project. The project gave me an opportunity to move beyond the boundaries of academia and to take some of my research work to a wider audience. This was challenging but highly enjoyable. I’ve rarely been able to teach my own research area before, so it was necessary to think about which ideas I wanted to share, and how to make these interesting and useful for the audience. It was useful to work with a partner, Jessica Haldeman, to pool our different areas of expertise and find connections. Since as PhD candidates we spend a lot of time focusing on a fairly narrow research area, this expanded my own knowledge of the period, as well as making sure the lesson wasn’t all about my personal preoccupations!

Most importantly for me, however, Moving Beyond Boundaries is about encouraging reflection on what history is and what it is for. The crucial message is that what we choose to emphasise in our past is important for our sense of identity in the present day. As a feminist historian, I therefore find the continued dominance of elite white men on the curriculum troubling. This had led the students, we discovered in the first session, to believe that women hadn’t done much worth remembering, although they were aware that this was due to restrictions on women participating in the kinds of events deemed to be worthy of inclusion on the curriculum. Perhaps the topics we think about need to change if we are to include women as anything other than an ‘add-on’. From my own experience, it was not until I began to work on more social history at university that I began find a history with which I could identify, and from which I could build a sense of how my place in society was built from the past.  Much of this is of course down to personal preference, but I had found stories of great men and glorious wars and high politics alienating because they didn’t explain how people like me had reacted and participated. There is a place for these narratives, but they must not be the only narratives students receive, because they say that ordinary people – men too, but especially women – and their everyday lives aren’t important. It is not just great events which shape the world, but the seemingly insignificant daily routines in which we all take part, and which contribute in their own ways to the wider stories of power, resistance, continuity and change that are the essence of history. I’m proud to be part of Moving Beyond Boundaries not just because it redresses the balance in representation of women in the history curriculum, but because it encourages students to question what they are taught and why, and how this affects their views of the world we live in today.

Ruth Mather

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Visit Ruth’s blog at http://ruthmather.wordpress.com