“Children don’t listen in history lessons at school, and who can blame them? Where’s the fun? Where’s the intrigue? Where are the interesting stories of the mad, bad, stupid, wonderful, odd, and improbable things that happened to our ancestors? The past is as daft as the present and the people of the past were as daft as us.” *
The more I learn about history (particularly medieval history, which the majority of people are only really exposed to in their primary school years), the more I begin to despair of the antiquated history curriculum, which is primarily based on unchallenged Victorian-era stereotyping of historical figures (of the “Bloody Mary” and “Evil King Richard” school of historical thought). To make matters worse, attempts at moving the system away from rote-learning have resulted in a devotion to avoiding knowledge-based testing so extreme that most people come away with no real knowledge of anything. I have therefore decided to include this occasional series, which I will call ‘A Venerable Classroom’, planned to be a mix of teaching suggestions and analysis of approaches to learning and teaching history, with the odd “interesting bits left out” rant thrown in for good measure.
This instalment was born of my utter, utter frustration with the failure to include the achievements of women in standard syllabus’, where they tend to be excluded all but entirely. Partly inspired by a re-reading of the thoroughly excellent Secret History of the Mongol Queens , by Jack Weatherford (a must-read for fellow feminist historians), and the back-archives of Badassoftheweek (a crude but excellent history blog and the best I know of for bringing obscure historical characters to light), I came up with this simple exercise for bringing the extent of the problem to light. Picture yourself in front of a class, for the moment consisting of seventh graders. You turn to them and say:
“Imagine that you have been assigned to go on a quest on which the fate of the world depends. You will need to fight, you will need to be strategic, you will need to survive in dire situations, and you will need to outwit your opponents many times over. To assist you on your quest, you will be allowed to choose five historical figures as companions. The catch is that they must all be women.”
Silence. Tell me truthfully, how many students could name someone other than Joan of Arc and Boadicea?
I personally think this could work wonders in a number of different areas: firstly, for simply bringing to light the biases of history, for introducing the concept of historiography and biased representations of the past, perhaps even to older students. Secondly, this could be used as a fun way to encourage students to further research the historical contributions of women, and if you don’t think that badassery is a worthy ambition, you can simply tailor the opening question: you have to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you need to infiltrate the government, you need to get information across enemy lines, you want to rule the high seas… You get the idea. Thirdly and finally, this creates an opportunity to bring the achievements of under-represented women, some of them outright heroes, into the classroom.
My list of unsung heroines changes on a day-to-day basis, and would probably alter itself depending on the age of the theoretical students, but here is, in its current incarnation, my imaginary quest team:
Lozen: The Apache were among the most skilled Guerrilla fighters in history, and Lozen, described by her brother Victorio as “The Shield of her People”, was among the best of the lot, and considered the equal of Geronimo on the battlefield. She participated in almost every major battle of the Apache Wars, including the bloody two month last stand of 1881, where it was said that “there is no warrior more worthy than the sister of Victorio”. On top of all that, she was acclaimed as an expert healer, and her exploits included guiding a mother and newborn baby through hundreds of miles of desert, enemy territory, (read wanted by the armies of two different governments) armed with only a knife, a rifle and a single pack of bullets.
Harriet Tubman: Of course, Harriet Tubman would probably sniff at that. She, after all, led more than 300 former slaves to freedom across vast swathes of enemy territory over the course of her 20 year career on the Underground Railroad – with a 40,000 dollar price on her head – despite the fact that she was both illiterate and epileptic. She was never caught, never captured, and never lost a single passenger. She also worked as a spy and reconnaissance officer in the Civil War, becoming the only woman to lead an armed expedition in the American Civil War, liberating more than 200 former slaves after a single battle. And to top it off, she was major suffrage campaigner alongside Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland, the keynote speaker at the first meeting of the National Federation of African-American women, and particularly noted for citing historical examples of heroic women as her justification for equal rights. Holy feminism, batman!
Princess Pingyang of the Tang Dynasty: In 2,100 years of Chinese Imperial History, only two peasants have ever overtaken the Imperial throne. And in the case of Emperor Gaozu, it was his daughter who got him there. When Zhao, later Princess Pingyang, heard her father had chosen to declare open revolt on the Empire, she fled through hundreds of miles of enemy territory (this seems to be a running theme), sold her family land to buy weapons and began assembling an army against local warlords. She was just 20. Within 6 months she had gained 70, 000 soldiers, defeated Imperial forces a dozen times over, and gained the loyalty of the people with that frequently-overlooked-but-surprisingly-effective tactic of forbidding her men from raping and plundering on pain of death, and offering supplies of food to every city she entered to maintain morale. She defeated yet another vast Imperial Army, and then linked up with her Father’s army to storm the capital and Imperial City and take the throne for him. Awesome.
Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd: AKA the female Robin Hood, with the added benefit of having definitely existed. The Welsh princess-consort of Deheubarth and her husband Grufffydd ap Rhys (a member of a rival family who she eloped with after her parents forbade the marriage- Hollywood, are you hearing this?) fled into the mountains and led retaliatory strikes against Norman invaders, redistributing the stolen booty among the displaced Deheubarth citizens. Gruffydd left to fight with his father-in-law in the revolt of 1136; the Normans invaded Deheubarth, and Gwenllian raised an army against the invasion, one of very few incidences of women directing armies in medieval history. After a long, drawn-out war, she was captured and beheaded, but inspired other men to retake much of Wales and hold back the Normans (for the time being), and “Revenge for Gwenllian” was used as a battle-cry for more than three centuries after her death. Three centuries. Wow.
Julie D’Aubigny: All right, she may not be a feminist role model, and certainly not one you’d use as a demonstration of female aspiration to younger students, but seeing as Julie D’Aubigny was basically a bisexual Inigo Montoya, and regarded in her brief life time as the finest swordsman (swordswoman?) in France, I think she’d make one heck of a useful spy and I’m including her. She was, to quote Badassoftheweek, “a 17th-century bisexual French opera singer and fencing master who killed or wounded at least ten men in life-or-death duels, performed nightly shows on the biggest and most highly-respected opera stage in the world, and once took the Holy Orders just so that she could sneak into a convent and bang a nun”. Really. With her remarkable skills in cross-dressing and disguises, duelling, having royal courts in the palm of her hand, and yes, seducing people left, right and centre, I think she’d make an excellent contrast to the bad-ass Guerrilla warrioresses listed above. Plus, she’s about the best example of “the mad, the bad, the stupid and the improbable” whose lack of Justin Pollard complained of in the aforementioned quote. History wouldn’t be complete without the heroes, but it wouldn’t be half so much fun without the hedonistic, improbable, societal rebels.
So, with my Guerrilla warrioress, wilderness survival expert, military strategist, resistance fighter, and cross-dressing sword-master gathered, I’m off to see the wizard, on a quest that I imagine will be just as mad, bad, stupid, wonderful, odd and improbable as history class never is.
*Justin Pollard, The Interesting Bits