I received an email today from change.org asking me to sign a petition to give to the education minister asking them to “add more female thinkers to the politics A-level syllabus,” and, when I finished reading the linked petition/article I sighed.
I’ll start this with a caveat; I support women’s rights and think they should have equal representation in every regard. However, I also think that we shouldn’t mask the attitudes of the past in order to bring them in line to how we think now. Joan of Arc is a household name because of her generalship, her religious visions and her posthumous canonisation as a saint. Cleopatra, likewise, is famous for being the last Pharaoh of Egypt and for her romance with Mark Anthony.
There seems to be a big and aimless push to teach children more about women throughout history without any understanding of history itself. A good example would be WWII. Almost everyone does a module on it at some point in their education if they are in the UK and the reason for this is because it has had so much impact on the modern world that is so easy to see. Most people have family who lived through WWII and can remember what it was like and everyone lives in fear of the nuclear bomb, the last, biggest invention to come from the conflict, and of course the Holocaust is something that should never be forgotten. Roughly 70 million people died in that conflict and, just from that number, it’s easy to see its importance.
I have to revert to the history course because it is the closest thing I did to politics and, fortunately, it does bare a lot of similarities. In terms of modern history I was taught a lot about American civil rights. With this not only came a module on feminism, but on Native Americans and African Americans and one on workers’ rights. In each course we learnt about both men and women in the movement and in each course it was easy to see where their importance. People like Betty Friedan, Alice Paul, Eleanor Roosevelt and Rosa Parks who had a clear impact on things without their inclusion in the course being justified by a “lack of women.” But of course, it is not just them who achieved momentous things and made great sacrifices in the pursuit of equality; Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Vine Deloria Jr. are names known all over the world and their impact is apparent at first glance as well.
The author names Kimberlé Crenshaw, Catherine MacKinnon, Emma Goldman, Audre Lorde, Simone de Beauvoir and Ayn Rand as suggestions for inclusion. Having read a little bit about those on the list who who weren’t known to me, I can see that each one holds and important place in the evolution of, predominantly, feminism, but also the evolution of socialist thinking and worker’s rights. However, one must compare them to other political thinkers of the modern era and people like Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler. These people, regardless of whether they can be considered good or bad, have had a profound effect on political thinking over the past century and the names listed by the author just don’t carry the same weight. Feminism is an important module in politics, but so is socialism, conservatism, fascism and egalitarianism as a whole. There are important women throughout history, but picking them arbitrarily helps no one with their education. Teach children about Margaret Thatcher, Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Sanger (especially her. Men and women have a lot to thank her for in the modern world) Virginia Woolf and Mother Theresa. You may not like many of them, or indeed any of them, but we wouldn’t be learning about Hitler if we were only considering people we liked.
You can look back in history and see many others of importance as well that are easy to teach about. From just a British perspective you could teach about Elizabeth I, Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Boudica, Queen Victoria or Elizabeth Fry. They are the biggest names for women in British history but there are so many smaller ones that are also worth looking into. And, if that isn’t enough for you, talk about attitudes towards women throughout the years and why there aren’t more women of note. Talk of why the biggest discoveries, from scientific to historic to geographic, were all discovered by men for almost two millennia. I find it insulting as someone who enjoys history and who is up for learning about almost any period of history, that people would want to limit what children learn about because they themselves don’t know the end goal of a historic and political education.