Women's history in the KS3 History Curriculum - painting of a woman by a fountain

Teaching diversity in women’s history

Guest post authored by Dr Natasha Hodgson

Remember our heritage is our power; we can know ourselves and our capacities by seeing that other women have been strong.

 Judy Chicago

Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

You may not have noticed, but March was National Women’s History Month. This year the theme celebrated “Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion”.

As an historian, I am acutely aware that teaching and learning about different women’s experiences throughout history is an essential part of understanding how gendered ideas have shaped our world.

Exploring women’s roles in past cultures and societies gives us a more comprehensive understanding of key historical events which allows us to challenge inequalities and improve society for everyone.

Women’s stories and experiences in an historical context

Since the 1970s, many leading history writers, both female and male, have sought to unearth and promote women’s stories and embed them within the broader collage of the historical past. Recent public-facing works include Femina by Janina Ramirez, Warrior Queens and Quiet Revolutionaries by Kate Mosse and Normal Women by Philippa Gregory.

However, when it comes to what is taught in schools, opportunities for young people to engage with any women’s history, especially women from diverse backgrounds, are still sorely lacking, and there is little in the national History curriculum of England to indicate that there is any in-depth coverage.

Diversity in the Key Stage 3 Curriculum

Key Stage 3 (KS3 ages 11-13) is the last chance for some students to engage with History before selecting their GCSEs. The curriculum for this stage follows a recommended (not compulsory) set of topics which focus heavily on British History from medieval to imperial periods, and British and European relations in the twentieth century.

The only compulsory topic is the Holocaust. Of over 40 optional subjects, the only one specifically devoted to women is the history of women’s suffrage. The reigns of Mary I and Elizabeth I are briefly namechecked in reference to the history of Reformation and religious settlement, but given the large scope of the topics, is it questionable how much ‘air time’ individual women receive.

At present we do not have an accurate picture of how many schools choose to teach women’s suffrage, or even what is actually being taught about women’s lives in History. If it follows the same pattern as End Sexism in School’s (ESIS) research into novels by women taught at English KS3, we can expect fairly limited engagement.

ESIS has launched a programme of research into this and you can volunteer as a crowd researcher.

Within such a limited curriculum, despite the best efforts of teachers, opportunities for discussions about inclusivity and exploring diversity are hampered. Initiatives have been underway for some time to decolonise approaches to History in schools, (for example the PATHS initiative run by the Schools History Project) yet much more could be done to create opportunities for women’s history. Incorporating diverse women’s histories in that process would serve the ends of both initiatives.

Women in medieval history

In my own field of medieval history, a rich wealth of information about women is being uncovered by academics, but this is not yet filtering into the textbooks and into the teaching materials for topics on the national curriculum.

Medieval history has clear popular appeal, with shows like Vikings and The Last Kingdom drawing heavily on the era for creative content.  Having some strong female characters like Largetha and Aethelflaed represents the audience’s desire to see more powerful women with complex characters.

However, many such popular interpretations rely on male-oriented and militaristic approaches to medieval history, often reinforced by gaming culture based on medieval warfare, and this has led to a disproportionate masculinisation of the medieval period.

For a minority, especially within alt-right groups, the medieval period has become an idealised fantasy of an all-white, hypermasculine and religiously radicalised society lending justification to modern racist and misogynist views.

In some cases medieval ‘heritage’ has been used in alt-right messaging and recruitment and even in the manifestos of terror attacks. While many focus on issues of race or religion as underlying factors, there is also evidence to suggest that misogyny is also key driver in the online messaging and recruitment for such groups.

These fantasies have real societal consequences, evidenced by the toting of medieval symbols, costumes and slogans. ‘Deus Vult’, the cry of the First Crusaders, was depicted on T-Shirts of those involved in the Capitol Hill riots, while quotes from crusade-related texts were emblazoned on the weapons of the Christchurch shooter in 2019.

Leaders and scholars, scribes and politicians

These are clear reasons why we can no longer exclude women’s voices from our learning about the medieval period.  Decades of scholarship have revealed solid evidence, written and material, about the lives of female merchants, scholars, scribes, artisans, manufacturers, moneylenders and agricultural workers, as well as more famous powerful and wealthy women acting as lords in their own right.

Just a small sample of the variety of these on offer will be showcased in a new exhibition at the British Library starting in October 2024 Medieval Women: In their own Words.

Women from across the globe, contemporary to those in medieval Europe, were playing fundamental and influential roles in politics, education, military affairs and economics, from Arwa, who was sole ruler of Yemen for over 40 years in the tenth and eleventh centuries, to the empresses of the Khitan Liao, like Chengtian.

Women’s history is “new” history

The challenge, then, is to get all this fantastic new research into our schools, to engage the next generation of young women and men to understand how gender constructions from different cultures in the past have impacted on the formation of their identities.

It can also encourage them to think about how they want to manage and change their futures inclusively, together, with better mutual understanding through reflecting on the past.

In writing this piece, I asked my nine year old son “Why do you think you should learn about women’s history?” and I was impressed by his answer – “Because it’s not fair just to learn about your own history.”

By engaging with people’s stories in the study of History, kids learn how to begin understanding differences, find common ground, communicate with each other across barriers and share the experience of being human.

History teaches us to understand opposing points of view and, where these cannot be reconciled, to respect that there are always alternate interpretations of the past.

Teaching medieval women’s history

To this end I have joined forces with a group of academics and secondary school teachers to develop a new project “Teaching Medieval Women” that seeks to aid with this process. 

It recognises that many teachers are woefully under-resourced, under-funded, time-poor, and under enormous pressure to meet OFSTED and results-driven agendas.  As a result of pressures on school resources, subjects like History sometimes have to be taught by non-specialists or supply teachers with limited time for preparation. In such instances the development of appropriate, high quality, co-created and freely available resources is essential. 

We are working with teachers to deliver some of those resources and training, and the new project will be officially launched at the Historical Association conference in May 2024. 

However, developing teaching materials alone is not enough, with a General Election coming this year, it is time to turn our attention to the delivery of a programme for History across schools which takes women seriously, and offers more opportunities to engage with diverse histories. When it comes to GCSE and beyond, even the most dedicated of teachers must focus on ensuring their pupils perform at their best in assessments, and where those assessments fail to engage with women’s history, there is once again a major gap. 

It is no longer enough to have a token ‘women’ question (many exam papers have none!), a couple of pages in a textbook dedicated to women, or just a single female case study in a six-week module to ‘balance’ a topic. Girls in every classroom today will face a variety of challenges based on historic ideas about gender, compounded by factors like race, class and disability, as they grow into the women of the future.

The diversity and scale of those histories needs recognition and proper attention. The research and the evidence that we need to increase the presence of historic women in our classrooms are there, so it is time to work with the exam boards and the politicians who design the curriculum to deliver a history programme that prioritises equality and diversity.

About the author

Dr Natasha Hodgson is Associate Professor in History and Director of the Centre for Research in History, Heritage and Memory Studies (CRHHMS) at Nottingham Trent University in the UK.

Her research has focused mainly on the medieval and early modern periods, with a special interest in medieval women, gender, and social and cultural history. She is the author of Women, Crusading and the Holy Land in Historical Narrative (Boydell, 2017), and a co-editor of Crusading and Masculinities (2019); Religion and Conflict in Medieval and Early Modern Worlds (2020), and Miracles, Political Authority and Violence in Medieval and Early Modern History (2021).

She is a co-founder of teachingmedievalwomen.org, a collaborative project between academics and teachers to revitalise and expand the teaching of women’s history in medieval provision at schools.

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