Bringing Alice’s story to life through secondary Citizenship and History teaching

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Sera Shortland, East Midlands ACT Ambassador and Head of Citizenship, New College Leicester

Learning about the lives of extraordinary local women such as Alice Hawkins, helps young people to understand the history of the suffragettes as being a period of history that strengthened democracy in this country.

More importantly, real life case studies show the power of people and the change that can be achieved when people come together to demand justice. In her lifetime, Alice Hawkins might not have seen how much she, and others, have changed the status and rights of women all over the world through one movement in one explosive (sometimes, quite literally!) catalyst for equality.  However, through her advocacy, campaigning and lobbying she continues to set an example for women that is continued today by many seeking further political rights for women. 

Exploring the suffragettes, either within secondary citizenship education or history (as you will see later) provides opportunities for young people to develop their knowledge and understanding of some critical concepts.  The core purpose of citizenship education is to develop knowledge and skills to become politically literate, active citizens, able to influence public life and democracy. When you think about it, this personifies Alice and the suffragettes, they knew what needed to be done, they understood parliamentary systems and process, and set about reforming it.  

The citizenship curriculum is a perfect vehicle in which to explore voting reform and the history of the Suffragettes, indeed one of the aims for citizenship at KS3 is to:  

acquire a sound knowledge and understanding of how the United Kingdom is governed, its political system and how citizens participate actively in its democratic systems of government

Clearly any lessons carefully planned around the Suffragettes will naturally cover these requirements and provide deeper learning around some central citizenship concepts. For example, the concept of ‘democracy and government’ can be made clearer through examination of the struggle for voting reform, (who the change-makers were, the methods they used to influence the decision makers) and the new freedoms an extended franchise granted women. A series of 6 lessons that I have written on the ‘Struggle for the Vote’ can be found and downloaded from the teaching hub at Oak National Academy. Here you will also find a specific lesson, on the Suffragettes, that interviews Peter Barratt about his great granny Alice

Asking speakers in to talk about the suffragettes, brings this subject alive for students. Indeed, I believe this is one of the most powerful forms of learning. Having Peter in to talk to an entire year group was incredibly special. Not only did students have an opportunity to meet a relative of a suffragette but also, they were moved to explore deeper questions around a movement that had previously been inaccessible to them. Yet here they were, visibly moved by the personal stories that Peter was telling. Learning more about the conditions for women at this time, being challenged to think deeper and ask probing questions about inequality.   Have a read of the impact it had on our young people when Peter came in to talk about Alice: https://www.pressreader.com/uk/leicester-mercury/20200208/281891595271977

‘Fairness and justice’ is another key citizenship concept and can be brought to life when learning about Allice Hawkins and others, examining the ‘crimes’ committed and the often quite severe punishments inflicted. Using debates around fairness and justice at this time, will engage young people, especially if you use provocative and controversial questioning such as: ‘How far should the militant actions of the suffragettes be considered acts of terrorism?’ or ‘Force-feeding, preserving or taking away human rights?’ An excellent resource on dealing with controversial issues can be found on the Association of Citizenship website here.

It can be a challenge for students to comprehend that just over 100 years ago, women would not have been allowed to even vote for their government let alone represent them in Parliament. Through making learning relevant, helping students see the lasting significance of women such as Alice by using modern case studies can aid comprehension. For example, the Equality Trust’s Campaign #EqualPay50 has commissioned a series of lessons to teach about gender pay inequality. This is something that Alice fought for all her life and has still not been realised. Using these lessons will show students what the gender pay gap is and how long it will take to close it. If your students get worked up by this, they can do something about it, create a petition online, write to their MP, advocate and lobby for change, just as Alice did.

Using the Suffragettes work can springboard young people into action and connect them to other issues they might be interested in. For example,  Votes at 16 or the work of the Glasgow Girls , who work for the rights of Asylum Seekers. There are so many campaigns and  petitions to inspire young people and get students thinking about current issues and how the past connects, informs and educates them. Finally, if your students want to take part in an active campaign and get recognition for it, take part in the Association for Citizenship Teaching Active First News Award. Read the details here.

Resources

The Fawcett Society

Women's Library LSE Website

The British Library Website

History.org

Parliament Website

Suffrage Resources

BBC Bitesize

5050 Parliament

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Hannah Thomas: Teacher of History, New College Leicester

How I’d approach teaching a unit on the suffragettes:

When planning and teaching a scheme of work on the campaign for women’s suffrage, we aim to tie our lessons to the broader themes of our curriculum, such as understanding changing attitudes towards gender, race and class. The suffrage movement in Great Britain was notable due to it being driven by women not only from the upper and middle classes and can be seen as an example of working-class women demanding the right to be heard. Similarly, it can be interesting for students to learn that the suffrage movement grew out of a radical tradition which is often neglected in the secondary school curriculum, having links to the abolitionists and Chartists of the early nineteenth century, through which women in Britain also advocated for social and political change.

We aim to challenge our students to identify evidence of changing social attitudes, and to be able to explain the reasons for these changes. Considering attitudes towards women in a range of contexts throughout history at other points in our curriculum – the reign of Elizabeth I in a module on monarchy and government; the impact of Nur Jahan on the development of the Mughal Empire; the influence of local women abolitionists, such as Elizabeth Heyrick, on the abolitionist movement – allows students to develop a coherent picture of change over time, and encourages them to consider how social and cultural influences have affected women’s ability to exercise power and participate in citizenship throughout British and world history.

Figures in women’s suffrage: Annie Kenney, Adelaide Knight, Alice Hawkins, Sophia Duleep Singh.

Resources

The Women’s Library, London School of Economics – with roots in the women’s suffrage movement of the mid-nineteenth century, the Women’s Library houses a fascinating collection of records relating to political, working-class and women’s history, some of which have been digitised and are available online

County Record Offices are an invaluable resource and often hold collections on local suffragist groups. County Archivists will be able to provide support in accessing and interpreting documents.

Search for your local county record office to find more information.

Suffragettes on file: The National Archives