Ruth Mather

Moving Beyond Boundaries: Feminism & History Teaching

Howard Zinn’s article on radical histories, the starting point for the Radical History workshop, stresses the crucial importance of empathy and tradition in inspiring change in the world today. This idea is central to the way in which I envision my own historical work on the politics of home (as both idea and physical space) in late-Georgian England. My own feminist and left-wing politics inform the subjects I approach, the manner of approaching them, and the ways in which I present my research, and in turn this research informs my approach to contemporary politics. My conviction that history is an important sustaining force for today’s political movements (of all shades) encouraged me to take part in the Moving Beyond Boundaries project, which I will discuss in more detail at the Radical History workshop, and more information on which can be found at www.teachingwomenshistory.com. I can’t take credit for the vision or organization of Moving Beyond Boundaries, which was the work of two fellow feminist academics, but was keen from the outset to participate in a project which, for me, encapsulated what radical history should be about. For radical history to be an effective inspirational force, we must disseminate it as widely as possible.

Moving Beyond Boundaries involved a number of researchers with expert knowledge of women’s history working together to produce a series of sessions on the subject for a local sixth-form group. The idea came from talks with feminist students at the University of York, who raised their concerns about the prevalence of male-dominated history on the National Curriculum. The project was given urgency by the concerns raised around the new history curriculum, introduced this academic year, and by the campaign for women to be represented on English banknotes. The organizers and facilitators shared a passionate belief in the importance of histories – not just of women, but of other marginalized groups – for people to understand their own identities and to make sense of the way contemporary society operates. This was a view reinforced by the responses of the students, particularly those who were already engaged in feminist politics, who felt that their knowledge of women as historical actors was limited to a few ‘exceptional’ case studies. What we were able to offer was a varied picture of the possibilities for and constraints on women’s action in a number of historical periods, taking into account the further implications for gender roles of class, ethnic and sexual identities, age and marital status. This provided a tradition of struggle in which those young feminists were able to set their own activism, with a clearer view of the origins of some of the restrictions on women’s participation in society, and how these had or were still to be overcome. Of course, not all of the students were interested in feminist politics, but at the very least the sessions challenged the widely-held view that women had done little worth remembering in the past.

Moving Beyond Boundaries was, of necessity, a small-scale, experimental project, which was not able to account for all of the inequities of the historical record and its interpretation to date. Nonetheless, it is hoped that the project will have a wider impact, not just through the dissemination of teaching materials online, but also in inspiring other academics to share their expertise in similar projects. As educators face considerable competing demands on their time, we need to present such projects as opportunities for schools to gain access to more diverse histories with the minimum of additional work on their part. In return, lessons can address a range of learning and wellbeing objectives for young people and empower them to become active, engaged citizens – and perhaps even future radical historians in their own right.

About Ruth Mather
Ruth Mather is a PhD candidate in the School of History/ Centre for Studies of Home at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research interests include gender, popular politics, material culture and the home in eighteenth/nineteenth century England, and she is currently working on a thesis provisionally titled ‘Power and Identity in English working-class homes, c.1790-1820.’ She is keen to communicate her research to a wider audience and enjoys working with museums as well as with researchers from different disciplines and those outside academia. She tweets from @ruth_mather, occasionally blogs at ruthmather.wordpress.com, and can be reached by email at r.mather[at]qmul.ac.uk

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