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OPINION: We need women in our history lessons

OPINION: We need women in our history lessons

Thursday 09 March 2023

OPINION: We need women in our history lessons

Thursday 09 March 2023

Following International Women's Day, Year 11 student Abigail Powers has considered why GCSE and A-Level history courses continue to focus on the male outlook, rather than the contribution women have made.

The Ladies College pupil shared her essay with us:

For many people, the only time they actively study history is in school. With so much to cover, schools and those who plan school curricula must be extremely selective about what areas of the subject to teach: which stories, whose voices.

The first instinct is to study the past of your own country, and this is certainly the case in the UK, particularly with GCSE and A Level qualifications. British history is interesting, and it is complicated. Learning about your nation’s past can make you feel more connected and invested in the overall narrative. However, when British history becomes the only thing you learn, it becomes a problem. This is especially true if it becomes a “great man” narrative: Alfred the Great to William the Conqueror; Henry VIII to Winston Churchill. A Euro-centric, white, male perspective of history means that, at best, you are left with a limited and incomplete understanding of the whole story. At worst, you have an utter lack of connection to other groups of people, and don’t know or believe that they had an equally essential part in history.


Pictured: Ladies' College pupil Abigail Powers says books which are available in their school library are missing from the national curriculum.

The absence or understatement of the female perspective in history is especially evident in UK exam board specifications. Few women’s stories are told and when they are, often the women are an anomaly, an addition, a separate part of the story. This is being addressed and discussed on an academic level with authors such as Caroline Criado-Perez in ‘Invisible Women’, Elinor Cleghorn in ‘Unwell Women’, and Janina Ramirez in ‘Femina’ - books all in our College library.

These ground-breaking and thought-provoking reads pose the question - why is this progress not reflected in British GSCE and A Level courses?

In the index of a GCSE textbook on Russia and the Soviet Union 1905-24, “women” are given one page reference which is, ironically, referencing a small paragraph about decrees on women’s rights. There is not an index category for “men”; women are seen as a special case and men are viewed as the standard. No individual women are named in this course specification. Surely the story of Maria Bochkareva and the Women’s Death Battalion (which our teacher was able to squeeze into the course) merits enough significance to be part of the examinable content? The same can be found in the unit on Weimar and Nazi Germany, and the pattern is repeated across the range of GCSE units. Though addressed in the Changes in Medicine c1848-c1949 module, the role of women in medicine is completely separated and unintegrated. Though it is important to recognise the progress for women in the medical field - women like Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Garrett Anderson - this habit leads to the isolation of female stories as curiosities, odd exceptions bolted onto the “real” story. Exam boards give no space to considering changes in women’s health over time, such as in obstetrics or contraception experiences which are profound and near universal, while the experience of men and warfare is a major focus.

The patriarchal patterns of the past mean that men were inevitably more present in politics. However, this does not mean that women were not there. In our school, students are lucky to be able to study the lives of a range of women many people may never have heard of, from Emma of Normandy, called by one historian the woman who shaped the events of 1066, to Josephine Butler, whose leadership of the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts challenged Victorian notions of femininity. Though you may have to search harder to hear their voices and uncover their stories, women were always there shaping and moulding the world. Much of History at secondary school is so restricted by the GCSE and A Level curricula, so perhaps it is time to rethink and redesign these courses. Are exam boards writing specifications with the concern that boys will not want to learn about anything other than the masculine point of view? Not only is this unfair but surely anyone - male or female - who appreciates the subject wants to get the most thorough and complete narrative possible.


Pictured: Men are more prevalent in history lessons across GCSE and A Levels writes Ladies' College pupil Abigail Powers.

It is vital that everyone has the opportunity to see their place in history. Now more than ever, in the complex and divided modern world, the importance of learning from history should not be understated. To share missing perspectives and lost stories is to give young people a thorough, rounded view and allow them to form better judgements about the past. True multi-perspectivity should include how people of different genders, races, religions, social classes, political ideologies, disabilities, and ages experienced and shaped the events of the past. Only then can we paint the real picture of the richness and complexity the past has to offer. At our school we are fortunate enough to study a broad curriculum reflected in the prestigious Gold Historical Association Quality Mark. As the only school in the Channel Islands to be awarded this prestigious award twice, our teachers combat the narrowness exam specifications can impose on our curriculums. This means I can see that history is not and never was a single perspective.

It is time that exam boards caught up with that in a meaningful way too.

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