Reflections on historical scholarship … Sheila Rowbotham on women who made the 20th century

In this blogpost we responded to requests for book reviews linked to a teacher subject knowledge reading list. It’s a resource that we can keep expanding as #obhd. Please send additions when you find them.

We are also keen to share colleagues’ thoughts about useful books they have read. How has a book changed your thinking? How has a book given you new ideas for future practice?

In this series of daily blogposts, teacher trainees reflect on a book that they read and discussed with their mentors. The purpose of this reading was not necessarily for use directly in teaching, rather to emphasise to trainees the importance of continuing to update their subject knowledge and the value of discussion with colleagues. Sometimes the reading has led directly to specific teaching ideas for a particular class or to a change in practice, but the posts also illustrate the different ways in which reading and discussing historical scholarship can support continuing professional development – for experienced teachers as much as for trainees.

Today’s reflection on Sheila Rowbotham’s book ‘Dreamers of a New Day? Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century’ is written by Adam Powrie.

I had originally intended to use this book as a source of primary material for a scheme of work I had been doing with a Year 8 class about Women’s’ fight for Suffrage, with a specific focus on what changed during the fight for suffrage. Each lesson focused on changing tactics, attitudes and outcomes, and activities were supported by source material to allow pupils to understand contemporary attitudes towards women and their goals. However, Rowbotham’s book completely changed how I approached the teaching of one of the most important subjects taught in schools.

Often, schemes of work looking at the fight for Suffrage rightly focus on the deeds of the Suffragists and Suffragettes, and the well-publicised and often controversial events which characterised the latter. However, the long nineteenth century, which saw a huge awakening amongst women is often neglected. Rowbotham’s book incorporates rich source material and original research which highlights just how women sought to overturn the social restrictions that had been placed upon them throughout history. The primary accounts focus our attention on the actions of women long before the Suffragettes came onto the scene. Rowbotham’s focus is not, as is so commonly the case, to look at the fight for the vote, but rather the way in which women dramatically altered the sexual and political assumptions that had overshadowed them throughout history.

This became a primary focus for the planning and execution of my scheme of work. I did not simply want to delve into another causal explanation of how women got the right to vote; that is to say, not only consider Emily Davison’s heroic and tragic horse accident. Instead, I thought it would be far more productive for pupils to consider the changes that accompanied the fight for suffrage. In other words, what were the changes in attitudes, actions and assumptions that accompanied the fight for the vote. Rowbotham’s work, which looks at the 1880s onwards provides a very stable backdrop against which teachers may want to refamiliarize themselves with the changing position of women at the turn of the 20th century. Moreoever, Rowbotham’s work provides us with an insight into how women were reacting to changes both in Britain and America. I had incorporated this focus into a lesson, after taking into account the benefits of a ‘meanwhile, elsewhere’ activity that had been discussed in one of my university tutorials.

My Year 8 class were engaged with the primary accounts that I had taken from Rowbotham’s book. They were asking critical questions about why women started acting the way they did, and in turn, this helped them to place themselves in the shoes of a women fighting for equal rights. This book is certainly one to be read before embarking on a scheme of work looking at women and suffrage.

Please do share more examples of reading, thinking and discussing historical scholarship as blogposts by sending them to enquiries@history.org.uk.

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