Women through the ages – a new scheme of work

Like many teachers I’m currently in the middle of planning for next year, with a bit more space to rethink the curriculum, and a comment from one of my Year 13 students has stayed with me. I think I’d written some feedback about avoiding generalisation regarding the representation of women  not treating Renaissance and Victorian women the same in her context-heavy essay – and she said that she didn’t really know the difference. She knew there was one, that women’ rights couldn’t have been completely stagnant until the early twentieth century, but didn’t have a strong grasp of what the changes in society more widely were.

Our schemes of work are often strongly feminist – perhaps because of our status as an all-girls’ school, perhaps because of the views of those planning them, but this comment crystallised for me something I’d been thinking about. With a frequent focus on different eras, different female roles – GCSE texts include Much Ado, with the contrast between Beatrice and Hero, Jane Eyre, with the rare less-than-middle-class women, and the conflict in An Inspector Calls centring on the treatment of Eva Smith.

Yet students don’t really always grasp the nuance of the changes in historical era. The past is a foreign country; they might do things differently there, but they all do it the same, don’t they?

So I’m considering a unit which incorporates this in some way under something like:

  1. Each week (sequence of 3 lessons) focuses on a historical period. Broadly, these would likely be Middle English; Renaissance; Georgian; Industrial Revolution; Late Victorian; Early 20th century; mid-20th century
  2. In each set of lessons, students would look at an extract of fiction or poetry that explores women’s roles and experiences in society, alongside a non-fiction piece which explores a key change – something social, political or economic. I’m thinking, for example, of a Caroline Norton essay on women’s rights in marriage and child-rearing for the late-Victorian era, an extract from Vindication of the Rights of Women, or a letter about factory working conditions.
  3. Each set would also have a brief overview of key beliefs about the roles of women at the time
  4. Students would explore a case study of a less famous woman, widening their experiences so they get more impressions of women over time

I’d also like to bring in more working class women – we tend to forget that by default the writers are, for a lot of history, middle/upper class (though those terms themselves I also find problematic historically! I need to speak to some history teachers!) For all our Victorian angel-in-the-house rhetoric there’s hundreds of working class women who’ve always had to work for a living, always run a household as well, and also, in some ways arguably had more freedom.

There’s a lot there to think about, and already it seems more like a year’s worth of study! Making it manageable and meaningful is important.

I’m not quite sure if I’ll be able to a) construct this b) avoid death-by-extract which I feel we’ve suffered from a little in the first years of the new GCSE spec and c) fit it into an already-crowded KS3 curriculum. But I think it would be a great Year 8 unit with the right texts.

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