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HerStory: Empowering Women’s Voices Through History

HerStory: Empowering Women’s Voices Through History

Written by Nicole T., St Mary's School, Alumna.

History is how we understand the world today. Our identities as individuals and communities are shaped by the stories of our past. However, ‘the past’ is a construction of contemporary society, written and rewritten by the people in power. These people have almost exclusively been men.

Women’s stories have been marginalised. This has had an immeasurable effect on how women are perceived and perceive themselves today. Presenting young girls with the contributions of women throughout history inspires them to continue their legacy of changing the world. This year’s Women’s History Month focused on ‘Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories’ and Black History Month’s theme was ‘Saluting our Sisters,’ both to promote awareness of women’s impact on history.[1] At St Marys’ School, Cambridge, the only girls’ school in Cambridgeshire, we celebrate the successes of girls present and past. Our aim is to inspire students to find their voice. One way we do this is by uncovering the voices of women from the past.

The theme of this year’s annual fun run was ‘Her-Story’ and students dressed up as women from history that inspire them. It was a little different this year as the rain kept everyone inside, however the students enjoyed games and a parade where they displayed their historical costumes.

This theme tackled the prevalent issues found in a Teaching History study: a worrying underrepresentation of women in the historical imagination of young people.[2] The study found that students struggled to name female historical figures beyond Queen Elizabeth I, Marie Curie, Rosalin Franklin and Charlotte Brontë. These women are remembered for occupying traditionally male spaces and are considered exceptional examples of female contribution outside of the home. The fun run encouraged students to search deeper into the past for less well-known female role models and celebrate women who had been forgotten and ignored.

There is a persisting problem within the study of history that the experience of women is treated as a separate and less important niche. Teaching History found that the history of women is generally confined to ‘the suffragettes’ or ‘women during the war.’[3] This underrepresentation can lead to beliefs that women had little to contribute because they did not have the opportunity to do so. The misconception that women were shackled to the home, unable to influence the outside world erases the significant role of women in politics, science, health, education, religion, business and culture.

All too often, women’s history is characterised by victimhood.[4] There is a danger of women being remembered as passive victims of patriarchal oppression. This can have detrimental effects on how young girls view themselves. Teaching young girls that their place has always been a marginal one can damage their feelings of self-worth and limit their aspirations.

Earlier this year in celebration of Women’s History Month, Sixth Form History and Politics students took part in a workshop run by Alice Woe, founder of ‘Her-Story’. The students engaged critically with a selection of women’s stories from the past, considering how gender stereotyping and sexist attitudes have shaped their memory. They were then tasked with rewriting these stories in a way that celebrated the women’s achievements.

Alice told the students: “History is one person’s perception of an event, recorded, and safeguarded through history until it becomes ‘fact’ – and typically this role has been played by men. By considering the different facts and events of a particular individual’s life, each of you can decide which events are most interesting, or most relevant, to that woman’s story, and create your own version of her history.”

This historiographical approach that analyses how the past is remembered was a vital tool throughout my history degree. During my first year I developed a passion for women’s history that I attribute to my time at St Mary’s where I was inspired by role models from past and present. Moving away from the history of ‘great men’, I wanted to challenge the way in which women are remembered.

My dissertation explored the influence of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire on the 1864 Westminster election. She is remembered for her scandalous affairs and tumultuous marriage (watch The Duchess starring Kiera Knightley for evidence of this) but her bravery to challenge the ideals of her gender and change the world are forgotten.

It would be easy to dismiss women who did not have the right to vote as politically unimportant, however Georgiana’s public campaigning, enlightened thinking and personal influence on politicians and the Prince of Wales shaped British politics. Although heavily exploited, her image was so powerful it created the relationship between the government and the media that exists today. She paved the way for political activism, advocating for the abolition of slavery and the monarchy. We cannot assume that women always conformed to the ideals of the time; they were as ambitious, intelligent and daring as women are today.

However, these women have been written out of history or so heavily reconstructed by contemporary attitudes and stereotypes that their authentic voices have been lost. This issue is addressed in Janina Ramirez’s Femina: A New History of the Middle Ages, Through the Women Written Out of It. This book is close to our heart at St Mary’s because it encapsulates the importance of our female ancestors. St Mary’s sponsored Janina’s talk ‘History’s Forgotten Women’ at the Cambridge Literary Festival with an introduction from one of our year 13 students.

You can read about Janina’s talk here.

The suppression of female voices has left a hole in historical sources which can limit our knowledge of women’s experiences. This year we celebrate 125 years, however, in 2018 we celebrated our 120th anniversary when we discovered more aboutour own history through St Mary’s School Logbook (1901-1927). The logbook was discovered beneath the Elms and was kindly digitalised by Wren Library, Trinty College so that this piece of history can be enjoyed by all. It offers a unique insight into the life of the first St Mary’s girls including records of ice-skating on Grantchester Meadows, attending poetry lectures at Trinity college, a visit from the Duke of Norfolk and an outbreak of chicken pox!

You can explore the first-hand account here.

The School is also closely connected to its history through the celebration and values of our tenacious founder, Mary Ward, and our alumnae from across 125 years, including the late Sister Christopher.

Sister Christopher was a valued member of our community and an important part of our history. She served the St Marys’ community as Head Prefect in the academic year 1933-34, a Mary Ward sister, an enthusiastic science teacher and a beloved Headmistress for 32 years. She continued her life mission of educating and inspiring girls in Zimbabwe where she stayed in frequent contact with the school. Her incredible 106-year life was celebrated in a memorial mass this November and is a testament to the fact that St Mary’s sisterhood withstands the test of time.

The School’s founder, Mary Ward, is a continual inspiration to students, serving as an example of women’s contribution to history. She said in 1612, ‘there is no such difference between men and women that women, may they not do great things? And I hope in God that it may be seen in time to come that women will do much.’ Mary Ward envisioned greatness for women at a time when they were grossly underestimated.

Mary Ward recognised education was essential in securing women’s place in history. She dedicated her life to the development of a congregation of religious women modelled on the Society of Jesus. Despite continual rejections from the Pope for her Institute, Mary Ward refused to abandon her conviction that women should play an unenclosed, apostolic role in the church. She faced imprisonment, accusations of heresy and the dissolution of her congregation but did not give up.

St Mary’s School launched the ‘In Her Shoes’ campaign to commemorate her 1500-mile walk from Flanders to Rome to present plans for her Institute to three different Popes. Our Junior and Senior Schools made two pairs of 'Mary Ward' shoes, which accompanied girls on school trips around the world to destination such as Ypres, Normandy and Iceland.

Mary Ward’s tenacity, resilience, determination, faith and vision for the place of women in society are ethos than underpin a St Mary’s education. She believed that women are the future, a sentiment that is echoed in our School today.



[2] ‘Victims of History’: Challenging Student’s Perceptions of Women in History, Teaching History 165, The Historical Association, December 2016

[3] ‘Victims of History’: Challenging Student’s Perceptions of Women in History, Teaching History 165, The Historical Association, December 2016