26 February 18
By Lisa Buttar, History and Politics teacher

I am a teacher of History; one that is determined to ensure that women throughout history do not remain a mystery. March is ‘Women’s History Month’ – a worthy celebration of the women who have shaped our planet since time immemorial, but where are they in our day-to-day History teaching all year round? It can be argued that History is largely written about men, by men. The suppression of female voices (doubly so for black, ethnic, lesbian, disabled and transgender voices) has led to a real lack of varied sources for us to work with in History classes. ‘Women’s History’ has become niche, and as a discreet academic study I have no objections to this on the same basis that one may study Military, Black, Medieval, Art, History etc. But why should it be a separate entity to everyday History in the classroom? Aren’t women an integral part of History? I think it’s time to talk about this.

In Year 7 History classes, I make it to March (ironically) without teaching about a single female figure from 1066 to the eve of the Peasants’ Revolt (1381). And then appears on the lesson plan: ‘the motivations for the uprising’. Here is the chance to introduce the first, fleeting, instance of a singular woman’s experience, not under the banner heading of ‘peasant women’ or ‘noble women’, and her experience is that of horrible sexual assault. The 15-year-old girl (Wat Tyler, or maybe John Tyler’s daughter – sources are unclear) was forcibly ‘checked’ by a tax collector to ascertain her age, putting his hand up her skirt and subjecting her to an examination. And here it was – 12-year-old girls’ introduction to the life of a young medieval woman. A quick Google search throws up not much more on the issue; a look through BBC Bitesize leaves this episode out entirely. Why aren’t we talking about this? I don’t even know her name, but she could certainly add her story to an historical #metoo. You might be forgiven for thinking that women are consigned to be ‘victims’ if you scan the next few hundred years of history: the witch craze can be read as nothing short of an economic war on women, the masculinisation of the healthcare industry and the widespread fear of female sexuality. The result was the torture, sexual assault and murder by hanging or burning of up to 200,000 people, mostly women (not exclusively though; it is very important to remember that men, too, were charged and executed) and mostly poor, throughout Europe between 1484 and 1750.

But let’s talk about how at least one of these women is viewed and misrepresented in History. ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’ is a cute and effective mnemonic used by most Primary aged children to list the six wives of Henry VIII. The rhyme is cruel and misogynistic in its very essence – describing the seemingly disposable fate of 6 women, six queens, all of whom have remarkable stories to tell. In my experience, the stories of these women are always told in the context of the reign of King Henry as one single lesson for Key Stage 3, in which we race through their names, barely pausing to consider which Catherine is which Katherine; or else as part of an investigation into the reasons for Henry VIII’s break from Rome or the downfall of Wolsey and Cromwell. Their names exist, it would seem, in textbooks to justify the success or failures of ‘great men’ – but what of these great women? So, Anne Boleyn: the wicked ‘other woman’, accused of betraying the King, incest and witchcraft. Is being a witch and a bitch all she should be remembered for? She has become as much a stereotype as her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, although much more divisive. Catherine, a steadfast, incredibly competent warrior Queen was not simply ousted by a cruel and calculating Anne; she was discarded by a misogynist husband who sought a different womb to bear him a son. Henry is a monster, but Anne is often painted as his enabler, and the stereotypical temptress. In fact, she waited 7 years for Henry and when she, too, disappointed him, was executed on trumped-up charges to blacken her name and allow him to marry his next stereotype – plain Jane Seymour, the English rose, the one who begot a son, whom he loved forevermore. Or was it just that she died before he tired of her too? Anne of Cleves is remembered for being ugly to Henry since he liked the look of her in a portrait, but not so much in person – the archetypal subject of objectification if ever there was one. Next up was Catherine Howard, the victim of childhood sexual abuse, but forever remembered as the teenage strumpet who lost her head for her sexual, and likely coerced, ‘affair’ with a much older and more powerful man – a known sexual predator himself. Katherine Parr, who had to beg for her life because her scholarly ways upset her husband, is remembered as rather boring and ‘nursey’.

And Anne Boleyn, the home wrecker and witch? If she had Twitter, she would certainly be subjected to a torrent of abuse not unlike our prominent female figures nowadays. These women are reinvented seemingly endlessly by historians. Why aren’t we talking about them in classes alongside Henry? Did not Catherine of Aragon rule the country in place of Henry when he was in France and give birth to the first female ruler of England? Was Anne not as instrumental in the partial reformation that England went through and the mother of one of our most successful monarchs? These women collectively represent many issues facing us today and yet we don’t take the time to make comparisons in our race to finish courses.

And what of the Queens we do give time to? Well, of course, we know much about them: Elizabeth and Victoria have become synonymous with female strength, virtue and stoicism. Or have they? Has not Elizabeth become remembered more for her rejection of ‘feeble womanhood’, courageous and ‘masculine’ defence of her realm and seemingly belligerent refusal to marry and weaken her position as monarch (at the expense of heirs)? Victoria for her adoption of stereotypical ‘femaleness’ as far as marriage and motherhood was concerned but was uncharacteristically ‘masculine’ in her pursuit of empire building? Seemingly, there is nothing in common for two of our most successful, long-term and female monarchs asides from these very facts, and one other thing – neither used their reigns to introduce advancements in the position of women. And yet we cite them as ‘great women’. Great examples of what women could be, if they didn’t have to be actual women, perhaps?

I used to teach about changing Britain from 1850 to 1914. I had half a lesson, if I was lucky what with time pressures to finish the curriculum, to teach ‘separate spheres’ of men and women. I always threw in a lesson about the angel/whore dichotomy – the idea that the Victorian Woman was either an angel of the house or a common prostitute with nothing in between, how it illustrates the need of a patriarchal society to categorise women. There was nothing of the first female doctors, scientists and writers who smashed the moulds. How can one teach about all of this in about 35 minutes? Can the complexity of women’s experiences during the Industrial Revolution and the growth of democracy be sufficiently discussed in such an amount of time? Or do we simply understand women’s history during this period as: likely to die in childbirth, middle class housewife, working class factory girl, few laws protecting her, no vote?

And that brings me on to teaching about Votes for Women in the 21st century, a topic I am saving (along with the Herstory of the 20th century) for another blog 😉

It would seem that all too often Herstory is one of suppression, sexual assault and gendered violence. Or is it? ‘Victimhood’ is woven throughout the very fabric of what we teach in History, and yet, even at that we shy away from the details and balk at the misogyny, such that we don’t really discuss it. We skirt around it, without saying that the very socio-political situation women find ourselves in today is not new, that young women and men should be angered by it and ask pertinent questions of history and historical sources and make tangible comparisons to the current climate. But what of the individual stories of resistance, rebelliousness, reinvention? There are incredible stories to learn, but one must look a little bit harder and ask a few more questions about authenticity, bias, propaganda and silencing. Whose voice are we hearing and whose version of womanhood are we teaching? There is much to learn from Herstory about the resilience of women and that is a bloody important lesson to teach in my book (if I wrote one)!

This has been a race through literally a couple of the most popular areas for study on school curriculums, and certainly not an inclusive or diverse look at women’s history in general. Largely, the female examples given are queens – so what can they teach us about women’s experiences? I haven’t had a chance to touch upon the treatment of black female slaves, for example, or women in domestic service, the Bryant and May factory girls, to name but a few, and pioneering women in nearly every field. And all too often women’s experiences and voices are whitewashed and generalised, shamefully often by me in whizzing through the year’s lesson plans. We can only ever skim the surface in History classes – but is that at the expense of teaching about women’s experiences over men’s? I’d love to open a discussion. What do you think? What aspects of women’s history do you think we leave off the curriculum that you would love to see on there? How can we help present the past so that it informs and shapes the future for everyone?

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.