Teaching U.S Women’s History in British Universities: a Personal and Political History

Teaching America’ is a collaborative blog series by the Historians of Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) and U.S Studies Online that aims to offer readers an insight into the ongoing conversations around teaching U.S. history in higher education. Featuring posts from leading historians the series offers advice on new and established approaches to teaching intellectual, radical and religious history, gender and sexuality in higher education, and race and transnational history, plus much more. Find out what you can expect from the series in the series introduction.

The series opens with a post by Dr Kate Dossett (University of Leeds)  who reflects on her own experiences of designing a course on U.S. women’s history, and how she has encouraged British undergraduate students to consider how their own gender identity shapes their approach to the study of history. Kate Dossett is currently working on the Feminist Archives, Feminist Futures project.


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Ten years ago I put together a U.S women’s history course. It was my first. The U.S history modules I’d taken as an undergraduate made no reference to women or gender or in their titles. No matter: courses such as “Civil War” and “American Revolution” implied a universal coverage. In fact the primarily “political” focus made it easy for women’s lives and experiences to be slotted into a week dedicated to “women’s experiences.” Excited I now had the opportunity to teach the history I’d wanted to study as an undergraduate, I put forward a module proposal for “A History of Women in the U.S. Since 1865,” a bland, but uncontroversial title, I thought. Shortly afterwards, I was taken aside by a senior male colleague who patiently explained that students wouldn’t enrol on a course with such an explicit title. Puzzled I went back to the module proposal and realized the troublesome word was “women.” Under pressure I changed the title (but not the content) of the module to something deemed less disturbing to British students: “Race, Gender & Cultural Protest in the U.S since 1865.” I already offered a course on African American history and knew that British students (and historians of the U.S) were comfortable studying race in an American context. But what did it mean for African American history to serve as the sugar coating for the apparently less appealing history of women? And why was the history of African American Thought and Politics presumed to be a history of black men? What does this say about how academic institutions imagine they know what students want?

I’ve been thinking through these questions for the last ten years as I have taught modules on the history of U.S. women and African American history.  One of the greatest challenges has been thinking through how we –and our students – reflect upon our own race, class and gender identities. In particular, I’m interested in why so many white British students (myself included) end up focusing on African American history. On the Black history course I teach, we begin by thinking about why we all know about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and far less about Black British History (and even less about the history of black women). Students find out what Black British history, if any, their peers have studied at secondary school and consider why there are so few black British history courses on offer at UK universities. Sometimes these conversations are uncomfortable: white students are often unused to thinking about, let alone talking about their own racial identity and sometimes expect BME students to lead the conversation.  A similar conversation takes place on the women’s history module. But the discomfort around gender is different. Women make up a majority of the 60 or so students on the module and are comfortable talking about gender as a historical process, shaped by race, class, sexuality, as long as it remains a historical process. Often when I tried to get students to talk about gender identities in the present there was an uncomfortable silence. We weren’t sociologists, and this wasn’t a politics class, was it? Or a feminist consciousness raising group for that matter. Student feedback sometimes referred to the ‘interesting discussions’ that took place in seminars, but noted they weren’t part of the ‘proper syllabus.’ So I decided to put ‘interesting discussions’ on the syllabus.

These changes reflect my own development as a teacher but also the dynamic and exciting input of the team of women postgraduate tutors with whom I have taught and developed the module over the years. Students are now required to keep an online journal in which they consider the relationship between debates in U.S. women’s history and how they experience those debates in the present. Topics typically include the gendering of reproductive rights, the racialized notion of a universal sisterhood and our own, gendered notions of what makes a good leader.  However the journal entry students most fear and enjoy comes right at the start of the module when they are asked to reflect on “the ways in which gender has shaped your experiences as a student.”  A significant minority of the majority female cohort always interpret this question as follows: “How often have you been discriminated against as a woman?”

Responses often go on to explain that gender has not shaped their experiences at all; they have achieved equally if not more so that the boys they went to school with; they  haven’t been sexually harassed or passed over for promotion in the work place. It is precisely this understanding of gender as something negative, and that ‘happens’ to other, misfortunate women who inhabit a distant past, that the reflective journal is designed to engage. At the end of the module students often single out the journal as the thing they hated, loved or which made them feel most uncomfortable. But they also appear much more confident about reflecting upon how their own identity shapes their attitude towards the study of the past, particularly in regard to the study of women and gender history. This confidence is shaped by many factors beyond the University, and perhaps reflects the apparently growing ease with which young women and men are deemed to engage with, and even identify themselves as, feminists.

In the final lecture on third wave feminism we discuss the problems  that today’s generation of young people are supposed to have with the ‘label’ feminism and students are asked to raise their hands if they are comfortable identifying as feminists. There has been no consistent response here, but it is safe to say that in the second decade of the twenty first century the percentage is consistently higher than it was ten years ago.  This change no doubt reflects what seems to be a remarkable regeneration of feminism, spurred by social media campaigns such as the F-Word and 50:50 Parliament.  It certainly feeds into a growing sense that it is legitimate to talk about and discuss sexism (Everyday Sexism Project) even within the academy and that feminism might once again have a legitimate place within historical enquiries.

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Danger! Women Included:

My reflections on how British students engage with U.S history courses is less a reflection on individuals or groups of talented and often inspiring women and men I’ve been privileged to teach but more a way of thinking about the gendered structures through which students –but also academics– experience history teaching in British Universities. Over the years I thought about changing the title of the U.S women’s history course. I didn’t, in part, because I wasn’t sure it would make much difference. A few years ago the black history module (now called “Black Politics from Emancipation to Obama”) received critical feedback from two students who complained that women cropped up in every seminar and lecture and suggested the title “Black Politics” was misleading:  the title didn’t make clear that this module was also about women.  When the module came up for review as part of the annual teaching review exercise I was sent a formal letter asking if I could make it clear women would feature on this syllabus.  As I pointed out, there had never been and still was no requirement to explain that men featured in other modules. The point was dropped.

In writing this blog I’ve pondered over whether my reflections should also be posted on academic sexism stories. In academia we seldom feel it is appropriate to write about institutional or individual sexist practices whether in our teaching, research or administrative roles. We value academic freedom, but, like our students, we don’t like to dilute our professional identities as academic historians concerned with ‘proper’ histories of the past. Tim Hunt was hardly the first senior academic to publicly insult women academics at a conference. What was different was the fact that so many scholars felt empowered to not only to discuss Hunt’s comments publicly, but to write about them too. But though there are increasingly spaces where established scholars feel they can do this and even some institutional calls for a change in culture there are risks, too. These risks are far greater for postgraduate tutors and early career scholars who are frequently asked to teach the courses of senior members of staff and are sometimes given little freedom to adapt them either to their own interests or even in order to allow women out of the ghetto of their assigned seminar or lecture on the U.S. history survey module. Inviting the gatekeepers of U.S. history and U.S. studies to reflect upon their own teaching practices seems like a valuable place from which to create a culture where these things can be discussed openly rather than behind the scenes. Yet it also seems that gatekeepers in privileged positions with job security need to be asking and learning from postgraduate teachers and early career researchers about how our own teaching and research practices need to change. I hope the “Teaching America” blog series will help facilitate these important discussions.

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About Kate Dossett

Kate Dossett is a Senior Lecturer in U.S. History and Director of Postgraduate Research at the University of Leeds. She works on women's and gender history and histories of the African Diaspora including black nationalism, the international black left, the Harlem Renaissance and black feminism. She is currently working on two projects: Radical Black theatre in the New Deal and a collaborative project on the making of feminist history and archives in Britain and the U.S. She was co-opted onto the BAAS Executive Committee in 2015 to develop policies on equalities and inclusion and elected to a three year term in 2016.
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