7 March 2018
By Lisa Buttar, History and Politics teacher

It just so happens that my Year 9 classes on women’s suffrage and Women’s History month, and International Women’s Day, converge beautifully. As if an excuse should ever be needed to focus on the women of history – or should that simply be half of the human population? I am even more mindful during this time to focus on some of the women who are fundamental to the issues we are studying, and yet curiously, don’t make the cut for the curriculum on an average day; and on International Women’s Day I go to town.

At my school, in Year 7 we learn about medieval life, arguably the most difficult period in history to find examples of individual women who aren’t royal, noble, holy or literal saints. However, we can study the women who were instrumental in the Peasants’ Revolt. Missing from the textbook, but agreed by academics to be a crucial element in the uprising, are women, and to name one: Johanna Ferrour – the woman who apparently led the group that arrested and dragged Sudbury to the chopping block. In Year 8 our study of India and Empire is enhanced by looking at an example of original rebel girl warrior and symbol of resistance, Lakshmi Bai.

Year 9 is rich pickings – Millicent Fawcett is often eclipsed by Emmeline Pankhurst in textbooks on women’s suffrage (more on that next blog!) but she needs to be put centre stage as a woman who spearheaded the Suffragist campaign and organised the NUWSS, raising the issue of ‘votes for women’ that could not be silenced for the next 20 or so years. America in the 1920-40s is the era of the flappers, vamps and the seeming emancipation of women, but perhaps a more tangible example of a woman’s narrative and fight for equality is that of Billie Holiday - a woman who persisted, despite double layers of prejudice, and fear for her life because of horrifying inequality, to not only change and challenge cultural ‘norms’ but also raise awareness of lynchings in the definitive jazz song of the oppressed south, Strange Fruit. 

At the tail end of teaching a hundred years of Chinese History to Year 10, there is the ability to highlight women’s experiences through the narratives in Wild Swans by Jung Chang. We can also give space to learning about the one child policy and the impact that it had on China’s female population, creating a legacy of forgotten girls – all of whose stories move, challenge and incite interrogation. Perhaps the legacy of the partial Reformation of England is best exemplified by the mention of the scholarly, and at times downright seditious, Katherine Parr (whose determination to translate and interpret the Bible in her own writing so angered her husband and King) to A-Level students – she did, after all, encourage Edward to continue with the Protestant reform, and tutor and inspire the young Queen Elizabeth after her (largely absent) father’s death. Feisty, fascinating and fabulous examples of women in History, all.

But on Women’s History Day last year I wanted to go further. I wanted our pupils to understand that women’s History is worth going off-plan for, to inspire and encourage a deeper understanding of some of the women who have shaped and changed our world. My Head of Department was on board, and, my goodness, so were the pupils! We used a brilliant resource called ‘History Heroes: Women’ – a pack of cards featuring 50 of History’s most influential women: writers, artists, politicians, scientists, spies, sportswomen, academics, warriors – all walks of life. Each card has a fact file of a woman, a snapshot of an extraordinary life. I revealed the pack to my students during each lesson that day, to their delight. A game – so intriguing! The ones who loathe writing were initially overjoyed, if only because they knew that writing huge chunks wouldn’t be featuring in this lesson. I told them to sit in a circle and explained the rules. Each would be given a card at random and their task was to persuade the rest of the class that the woman they had been dealt had made the most important contribution to History.

Now, I know what the cynics are thinking: but pupils just love competition, they love to win, so isn’t this just pitching women against other women in a competition that isn’t fair – because how can these extraordinary women be compared? Isn’t this trivialising women’s contributions? How do you know pupils will actually take anything from this other than the enjoyment of a lesson not academically rigorous? Valid, but I’m going to state my case. 90% of these women don’t feature on the curriculum at all. Am I willing to make pupils’ learning, about women they might conceivably go through their whole lives never hearing about, fun? Oh, absolutely! So, pupils all had their cards poised, concentration, admiration, surprise, on their faces, as they read through their woman’s profile, ready to make their arguments. And then the debate began. I have never heard so many young men and women explaining and justifying the contribution of great women before – and it was glorious. Jane Austen, Marie Curie, Mary Wollstonecraft, Pocahontas, Mary Anning (to name but a few!) were all posited, considered and debated by the class. And most importantly acknowledged. Their contributions were being put forth in terms of ‘imagine this woman hadn’t done this’, or ‘surely this is the most important thing that has ever happened’, and my favourite: ‘she changed the world’.

At the end of each class we came, grudgingly, to a decision. The pupils posited that it was completely impossible to judge all women against each other (hallelujah!) but decisions were made and consensuses reached. It was Harriet Tubman in one class, Ada Lovelace in another, and Elizabeth I and Anne Frank later in the day. Each class had come to a different criterion for ‘greatness’ and ‘contribution’ - and isn’t that wonderful?

We always reflect on lessons as teachers: what went well? What could be improved on? What did pupils learn? I worried that it had been too shallow a lesson, too frivolous, too inconsequential. Had it mattered? On the way out of the classroom I overheard two 14-year-old boys talking:

“Ada Lovelace was the first computer programmer. That’s so cool” said boy one.

“Yeah, but I still think mine should have won” said boy two.

I was too intrigued by the conversation to interrupt and ask him which card he had because the next thing he said was “she was absolutely awesome, wasn’t she?”

About Author

Lisa Buttar has been teaching secondary-level (including 6th Form) History and Politics for 11 years, both in Scotland and England. Currently teaching in the South of England. Follow her on Twitter @TeachHerstory and Instagram @teach_herstory.