Teaching Feminist History – Some Good News

A little while ago there was an interesting discussion on this blog about the best way of teaching feminist history to children. So I was excited and impressed to read about one such successful example, organised by Durham Record Office, which used archival material to engage Year 7 pupils (both boys and girls) in stories about the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Durham Record Office have kindly allowed me to reproduce the article here. It was first published in the Society of Archivists magazine (ARC).

There is another account of the results of the project in the local newspaper (Interesting how the photo they chose to illustrate the article only shows boys!)

Archives inspire New Suffragette Movement

On Thursday 17th July, visitors to Beamish Museum were treated to two performances by students from Gilesgate Sports College and Sixth Form Centre. Dressed in costume from 1913, 70 year 7 pupils danced along the cobbled street in the name of women’s rights.

This project was part of Cultural Hubs Durham, a government funded initiative managed by County Durham Arts in Education organisation The Forge, and was the result of a partnership between Durham County Record Office, Beamish Museum and Dance City. It involved pupils learning about the women’s suffrage movement through archives, drama and dance.

Our role at Durham County Record Office was to prepare worksheets, each containing a character based on a real person who lived in County Durham in 1913. The date was chosen because the High Street of the Town at Beamish Museum is designed to look as it would have done in 1913. We had decided that each character needed three sources of information that the students could then look up. In most cases this was a census entry, a parish register entry and another source. We tried many different approaches, including looking in newspapers for letters on the subject of women’s votes and looking for prominent suffragettes mentioned in books on the subject. Unfortunately, in many cases the person concerned came from outside of the area or simply did not appear in enough of the records we held to be able to provide the magical three sources needed for the worksheet.

The characters we chose were taken from all social levels, from miners to university tutors. Some were known to have been suffragettes; others spoke out against the movement in newspapers or other forms and still others were simply normal people whose opinions we had to guess at. This last was not ideal, but there were only so many people living in Durham in 1913 whose opinion we knew, and it wasn’t enough for a class of 25!

There was also the challenge of guiding year 7 pupils through our microfilm system. We decided to give them the reference number for the reel of microfilm they needed, but they then had to navigate through the reel by themselves to find the relevant entry. This actually worked surprisingly well. We had plenty of helpers on hand to help the pupils load the microfilm onto the readers and to help them read the handwriting. We also had copies of all the relevant entries so that at the end of the session, children who didn’t have enough time to look for their entry could finish quickly. The teacher was also given copies so that the children could finish their work at school.

Some of the sources did present particular problems. Some of the newspaper articles, for example were very wordy and hard for the children to understand. It would have been useful to be able to give certain worksheets to the more able children. As it was, there was one Chinese boy who was barely comfortable with English trying to decipher Crockfords Clerical Directory!

The students, however, rose to the challenge and became very engaged in the activity. We were later told by their teachers that the children had talked of nothing else on their return to school. One boy was absolutely delighted to find a photograph of his ‘daughter’ and held it up for the other students, saying how proud he was of her!

Armed with the information gathered at the Record Office, the students held a debate at Beamish Museum in March 2008, taking the part of the characters they had researched. They marched with banners down the High Street of the 1913 Town at Beamish. This parade, although in costume, was a pale shadow of the performance they would later give in July. During the intervening period, they worked with a team of professional dancers led by Raul Calderon at Dance City and with Tom Sounds, a professional drummer.

The final result was tremendous. Visitors to Beamish stopped browsing the displays and gathered to watch the performance. The students were undeterred by the rain and displayed levels of talent and professionalism that belied their age. All in all it was an enjoyable and worthwhile day and the fruition of months of hard work.

Dawn Layland, Assistant Archivist – Education and Outreach

Durham County Record Office

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