Respectful relationships education? Lets start by teaching some herstory

Lawyer and activist Anna Kerr shares her thoughts on the necessity of making women’s history central to a feminist intervention into education in Australian schools.

On July 21, 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “thousands of NSW school students will have a greater focus on the environment, Asia, and the role of women and Aboriginal leaders in shaping modern Australian history under a suite of proposed electives to be introduced by the NSW Board of Studies on Thursday.”

Ophthalmic Hostel, Wilston, Brisbane, 1940. Image via Queensland State Archives.
Ophthalmic Hostel, Brisbane, 1940. Image via Queensland State Archives.

While this is seemingly good news, the operative word here is “electives”. These changes are unlikely to impact on the core curriculum or mandatory history content to be studied by all students. Furthermore, as noted in the same report, the English curriculum would be “abandoning an overall focus on critical theories such as feminism.”

Having spent over 20 years working in legal services assisting disadvantaged members of our community, particularly perpetrators and victims of crime, I am very conscious of the cost to our society of repairing the short and long term damage inflicted by male misuse of power within a context of male privilege.

During a stint of history teaching, I was dismayed to find the school curriculum still continues to overwhelmingly focus on warfare and colonisation and thereby asserts the primacy of white male violence over other areas of human activity and accomplishment. It continues to disregard the narratives of the oppressed. In particular, it continues to disregard Herstory. This needs to change.

The current school curriculum does little to teach children to challenge the assumption of male superiority that has prevailed throughout history. Only a minority of the important figures studied in relation to history, science or the arts are women. Lists provided by the Board of Studies continue to be dominated by male personalities and frequently military leaders.

NSW suffragists, Australian Town and Country Journal, 1902. Image via State Library of New South Wales.
NSW suffragists, Australian Town and Country Journal, 1902. Image via State Library of New South Wales.

Children are also required from a young age to make repetitive study of colonisation and war, giving them a distorted view of the past as a series of male power struggles in which women have played a tangential, often supporting role. Meanwhile historical events of major feminist significance that should be mandatory within the curriculum are relegated to elective status or ignored altogether.

For example, despite the fact that Australia was a world leader in granting women the right to vote and stand for election, this accomplishment receives minimal or no attention in our school curriculum. The suffragettes’ monumental achievement was accomplished with no killing and as such was a spectacularly successful civil disobedience movement. It predated and potentially surpasses in significance the work of historical figures such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Surely this should be mandatory content in an Australian curriculum?

"A High Caste Lady's Dainty 'Lily Feet'," 1911. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“A High Caste Lady’s Dainty ‘Lily Feet’,” 1911. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Other topics of feminist significance, such as witchhunting or footbinding, also fail to feature within the current core curriculum. This is despite the fact that they have arguably had a greater formative impact on humanity than any war. For example, footbinding in China lasted for a thousand years and impacted on an estimated billion women.

And what of ancient history? The early female astronomers who had the ability to make the “moon disappear” (predict eclipses) were met with some of the first recorded accusations of witchcraft. Surely there is space in the curriculum to study how women’s prowess as alchemists (cultivating plants and concocting herbal remedies) and aptitude for domesticating animals (their “familiar others”) laid the basis not only for their later persecution but for the development of chemistry, medicine and agriculture.

The study of antiquity is incomplete without attention to its closure with the brutal murder of Hypatia in 415AD – an episode which is said to have marked the end of Alexandrian intellectual life. Hypatia was credited as the greatest astronomer and philosopher of antiquity, but was scathing about the role of religion in “teaching superstitions as facts” and was set upon by a mob of angry Christians who tore her body apart and burnt all her books and those of other women stored in the great library of Alexandria. Surely this event should form core content, as it neatly marks the end of classical antiquity and the onset of the aptly titled “Dark Ages”.

Johann Jakob Wick, "Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland" (1585). Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Johann Jakob Wick, “Burning of three witches in Baden, Switzerland” (1585). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Early modern European history merits more attention in the curriculum as a time when the hunting and burning of witches was carried out on a large scale and under the auspices of Christianity. The persecution of women (and non-conforming men) this enabled was one of the greatest catastrophes ever suffered by humanity, and surely worthy of being core curriculum content.

As a matter of urgency, a feminist perspective must be introduced into the curriculum and topics such as these introduced for mandatory study. Without an education that recognises the extent of women’s historical accomplishments and that takes account of systemic female oppression, neither male nor female students are equipped to resist the implication of male superiority.

Furthermore, while we actively condition children to accept a view of history in which male military adventures are the centrepiece and the domestic concerns of women are rendered inconsequential, we cannot expect any substantive change to attitudes as to gender equality.

In any case, teaching a history which focuses principally on war and colonisation is increasingly problematic in a multicultural society where there are many competing narratives about these conflicts. Is it Australia Day, Invasion Day or Survival Day? Does ANZAC Day commemorate our nation’s noble and glorious “baptism by fire,” or was it just a regrettable waste of young men’s lives?

It is also essential that histories are taught that prioritise activities other than war and invasion. For example, there is currently very superficial coverage of the history of agriculture and food production, the history of architecture and fashion, or the history of science and technology. Women have played a crucial role in relation to each of these as they have in relation to peace, human rights and environmental movements – and all without the use of guns.

An education that presupposes male superiority and the supremacy of violence is not conducive of respectful relationships and contributes significantly to attitudes that fuel domestic violence within our community. It is imperative that a feminist perspective be adopted and taught in relation to the National Curriculum and that topics such as the suffragette movement, the witchhunts and footbinding are introduced as mandatory content as a matter of urgency.


Anna Kerr is a lawyer, teacher, activist and mother of four. She is the founder and Principal Solicitor of the Feminist Legal Clinic which works to advance feminism by supporting feminist groups and their members. Her clients are diverse and include the Coalition for Women’s Refuges, the Women’s Family Law Court Support Service, The Women’s Library and Mamapalooza Sydney. Anna is a member of the Australian Women’s History Network.

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