How can we use women’s history to re-frame the curriculum?

As a teacher, I am keen to ensure that the lessons and enquiries I plan for KS3, 4 and 5 measure up to emerging standards for the most representative History curriculum possible. Like many teachers, I use Twitter as a resource for keeping up to date with teaching ideas, and the #MeToo movement – along with other cultural and academic changes – led to a range of new approaches for teaching women’s history. The Twitter profile @OnThisDayShe has helped open my eyes to the experiences of overlooked women in history, and historian Dr Fern Riddell (@FernRiddell) has offered inspiration for women who might be included in the KS3 curriculum. Twitter has also pointed me towards teachers like Philip Arkinstall, whose work on medieval women has changed the way I teach about Henry VIII’s wives. With International Women’s Day taking place in March, it’s great to see the wonderful work being done to weave the experiences of women back into the stories we tell about the past.

However, one woman whose life has rarely grabbed the attention of History teachers is Emma Hamilton, most famous as the mistress of Lord Nelson but also known (at least during her own lifetime) as the originator of an innovative new style of popular entertainment. I wanted to see if an enquiry focused on this significant figure might add greater interest and nuance to the study of a particular historical period, as well as helping to reframe the way that we think (and teach) about what ‘matters’ in the past.

Emma Hamilton was quite the character: studying her as part of my PhD, I had to keep reminding myself that all of these sources related to the same person: a woman who lived for less than fifty years. She began her career as a dancer and artist’s model – only to be married off to the diplomat William Hamilton once she had outlived her usefulness amongst the elites of London. In many ways, she managed to rally against convention: she exerted real influence on contemporary artists, coming up with a performance genre – the ‘attitudes’ – that enjoyed huge success (and can still be glimpsed in the tableau-performing buskers who startle passers-by when they ‘come to life’).

When introducing Emma Hamilton to students at KS3, I like to start with the letters that she sent to Charles Greville (an MP with whom Hamilton fell in love). Sharing extracts from Hamilton’s letters, I challenge students to ‘place’ Hamilton chronologically. Excerpts like ‘What shall I dow? O… what else am I but a girl in distres?’ testify to a young woman in love; Hamilton’s wild claim that she had been transformed into a ‘grave, thoughtful phylosopher’ reveal her naiveté, and contrast well with some of the less flattering portrayals of Hamilton that emerged in contemporary periodicals. These letters could belong to a young woman of our own time. Students are able to relate much more easily to someone who is as liable to make spelling mistakes as they are!

One of the best things about framing an enquiry around Emma Hamilton is that it allows me to introduce themes that are rarely explored at KS3. For example, Hamilton’s story offers an opportunity to touch on popular amusement, and to help students grasp the fact that – for many people at the time – ancient Greece represented an ideal for ‘modern’ living. History really was used and abused in the late eighteenth century, and this is a useful way of reminding students that ‘the past’ is always the construction of contemporary society.

An enquiry titled “Why were Grand Tourists so entranced by Emma Hamilton’s ‘attitudes’?” therefore centres partly on an ‘immersion’ activity in which students re-enact the classical story of Medea, before considering evidence that helps them to understand the attraction of Hamilton’s own unique entertainment form. Later in the enquiry, students recreate some of Hamilton’s ‘attitudes’ for themselves (see Fig. 1). This is a good way of underlining Hamilton’s talent: students find it harder than they expect to try to convey certain characters or ‘passions’ in statue-like form!

Some of the ‘attitudes’ students ‘acted out’. Based on the poses performed by Hamilton, this activity helped students to understand the appeal of the genre.

Studying Hamilton and her ‘attitudes’ went down really well with students whose typical history diet has consisted of wars, dictators and revolutions – topics which tend to prioritise the experiences of men. At present, we devote a good deal of time at KS3 to topics like the rise and fall of the British Empire, the First and Second World Wars and the horrors of Nazism. These topics have an important role to play in developing students’ historical understanding, but they do come with their limitations. Delivering an enquiry on Emma Hamilton, it was nice to hear students reflecting on things like employment opportunities for women, the role of women in the eighteenth-century art world, and even changing ideas of ‘beauty’. These are minutiae that are often overlooked in our whirlwind KS3 curriculum, but offer important new dimensions to students’ understanding of what ‘history’ is.

I think that students enjoyed the focus on popular entertainment, too. Initially they found it hard to believe that Hamilton’s audiences might have laughed, cried or even screamed when watching frozen imitations of ancient characters – but when students read extracts from the original writings (like the story of Medea), they seemed to appreciate the shock value of Hamilton’s genre. They realised that a good story is a good story, even if it was written over 2000 years ago! Particularly pleasing comments from the students included ‘I think people liked watching Emma because she got them to feel like they understood those old Greek plays’; ‘Emma Hamilton made people forget they were living in the present’; and even ‘so Emma Hamilton, she was really like a celebrity before celebrities were even invented’. Hearing these observations, I felt that my social history approach was justified: I had helped give students a window into aspects of history that they’d not really explored before.

There are lots of other women who might be woven into existing KS3 enquiries. I plan to devote time to Second World War Spy Odette Sansom, Dutch resistance hero Freddie Oversteegen and Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollantai – although I think it is important to avoid the tokenistic approach that Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault in her article ‘Phases of Thinking about Women in History: A Report Card on the Textbooks’ and others have cautioned against. To this end, I am keen to shape new enquiries around women who existed outside the boundaries of traditional ideas of historical ‘significance’. Rather than simply embedding them into existing enquiries, I want to use these women’s stories to highlight things like family relationships, work and leisure, ideas and beliefs, and the lives of children: in short, aspects of the past that are not generally prioritised at KS3, but hold a great deal of potential in capturing the interest of KS3 students.

Focusing enquiries on the experiences of women hopefully enriches students’ learning experiences, offering inspiration whilst also serving to redress the balance and provide a more complete picture of ‘the past’. The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 – #ChoosetoChallenge – encourages us to ‘seek out and celebrate women’s achievement’. Looking to include the stories of Emma Hamilton and other women within our teaching goes some way towards fulfilling such a challenge. It also serves to demonstrate the important fact that history is an active, fluid discipline: the way we teach history ought always to respond to evolving ideas, approaches and interpretations.

Elena Stevens is a History teacher at a school in West Sussex. Previously, she completed a PhD in nineteenth-century popular entertainment at the University of Southampton, and she is keen to build her research interests into planning at KS3, KS4 and KS5. She has also created a number of resources for the website History Resource Cupboard.