22 MAY 18

My colleagues are often a bit nervous about teaching Votes for Women, or simply ‘The Suffragettes’ as it is so often referred to in schools. The anticipation of kickback from uninspired teenagers, or worse, provoked teenagers, can be terrifying. ‘What if they say something?’ Really, it’s the ‘what if’ they object to being taught about ‘women’s issues’ that incites nerves. We all relish teaching, and facilitating discussions and discourse, about the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis; the terrible treatment of black Africans during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; the effects of Empire on native populations; the Civil Rights movement in America – because we know that it is a rare occurrence that pupils will say anything contentious when it comes to ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’. And if they do, we have the weight of safeguarding and wellbeing polices about anti-radicalisation and instilling and upholding Fundamental British Values in our school communities behind us, not to mention the rewritten, revised and moralised histories. Moreover, pupils know that racism and intolerance towards minorities is wrong. Teachers are clear and confident in challenging it.  We seem to be less clear about how we tackle sexism in classrooms.

Why does teaching Votes for Women matter? This year, a centenary year of some women over 30 being enfranchised for the first time, it seems vitally important. But why? I teach A-Level Politics to 16 and 17-year-olds.  They learn the facts, statistics and analysis to enable them to write an essay about why young people are the least likely group to vote. They are often dismissed as ‘disenfranchised’. They don’t seem to think their votes matter. So why on earth should 13-year olds care about why women got the vote 100 years ago? This is the first challenge – how to explain the importance of suffrage in a world where politics seems so grown up and responsibilities so far off? But, kids, unwittingly maybe, are discussing political matters. They have opinions on what should happen to immigrants, they have views on the death penalty, the gender pay gap, Trump, nuclear weapons and they are discussing, sharing and developing opinions. So, informing them about why the vote matters is vital, and they can handle it. Classrooms, and teachers, can provide and facilitate genuine discussion points and information free from the pernicious algorithms of the echo-chamber that is the internet. Online platforms are the place where kids will seek to find answers and likeminded views, and yet are seldom offered any challenge to their burgeoning opinions on everything from feminism to ‘meninism’ and all manner of gender issues.

I always start my series of lessons on Votes for Women with what equality ‘is’. It’s not a set of scales with a tipping point. By looking at it as such, piling ‘rights’ on one side means the other necessarily has to move to adjust. This is not the case when it comes to women’s rights. By giving women rights, such as the vote, there is no shift in men’s rights – other than the loss of privilege. To highlight what privilege means I ask my pupils to imagine I have two big cookies in my hands. The really gooey, good ones; maybe they are still hot out of the oven. I say to one pupil that they can have a whole cookie and I pretend to split the other in two and give a second pupil only half. I ask the second pupil how they feel: ‘it’s not fair’, they say. I then tell them that maybe some days later, maybe even a week, I give pupil two the rest of their cookie. Immediately I am met with sighs and a ‘that’s not fair!’ from pupil one. The loss of privilege feels like injustice. All that has happened is that both pupils have received one whole gooey equality cookie. They like this analogy. It helps to negate any opinions that, in order for women to have more rights, men must suffer some loss to theirs.

So why would a woman in the 1800s want the vote? I ask the pupils how someone who has no rights over their bodies, custody of their children, pay and conditions at work, property, ability to divorce or graduate from university and practice in the chosen profession changes their circumstances. They answer: ‘the law needs to be changed’. Where do you change laws? ‘In Parliament’. If Parliament can shape, make and change laws, but women don’t have a voice in Parliament, is anything likely to change? Now, they are thinking.

With the context set it is time to learn about the groups and individuals who helped to enfranchise women. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Some fantastic resources have been produced this year, but I have really struggled with textbooks in the past. I have come across textbooks that talk only about the WSPU, or Suffragettes, and most pay far less attention to the NUWSS, or Suffragists. I don’t think this is coincidental. In the business of teaching kids, the performance art of entertaining whilst educating, the antics of the Suffragettes seem more engaging, more attractive, more modern. But often the purpose of the investigation is ‘why women got the vote in 1918’, so lessons on these extraordinary groups of women, and men, becomes one of comparison; an historical cat-fight between two seemingly warring groups. This comparison is not helpful; the determination to label them militant/peaceful; rational/irrational; effective/ineffective; good/bad, is ultimately to overly-simplify and belittle the contributions of both. Historical events and outcomes are never down to one factor, and certainly every good A-Level teacher has an exceptional essay plan up their sleeves to this effect. They will tell their pupils that the eventual granting of votes for some women in 1918 is down to not only the methodical and persuasive arguments of the Suffragists and the continual pressure and attention-gaining tactics of the Suffragettes (and also their contribution to the recruitment campaign and war effort during WW1), but also the piecemeal changes to law and women’s rights anyway, the change in Prime Minister from Asquith to Lloyd George, the Conscription Act in 1916 and the fact that after the war there would be far more female heads of households. All played a part in the timing and nature of The Representation of the People Act, 1918. Teaching this to younger pupils too not only provides them with great historical context for pertinent conversations in the current climate and their understanding of citizenship, civic duties, rights, protest and justice, but also develops their skills of analysis, reasoning, judgement and critical thinking.

Teaching votes for women in the 21st Century allows us not only to teach a singularly female-centric topic, but also one that encompasses diversity – working class, LGBTQ+, BAME, middle-class, aristocrats working together to an end, albeit with slightly different viewpoints on how to get there. In a world where reportage still writes women out of significant political processes and events, it is ever more vital that we place women at the heart of lessons. If this makes us uncomfortable and uncertain of how young people will react, then we must surely ask ourselves ‘why’?


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.