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Why are women disappearing from the curriculum?

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Are women being marginalised in schools? While we’ve come a long way since English literature courses featured only ‘old white men’, it seems that women’s voices are quietly being dropped from other syllabuses.

The Independent recently reported that the politics A-level curriculum will now only feature one woman, while in August, seventeen-year-old Jessy McCabe started a petition to exam board EdExcel after noticing that her A-level music syllabus featured 63 male composers but no female ones. Her campaign was backed by the Girls’ Day School Trust, and also by composer Judith Weir.

It’s not just the arts and humanities. Recent studies have attributed the shortage of female applicants to STEM subjects at university to a lack of female role models – no wonder, if women’s contributions to science and mathematics aren’t being taught in school!

Dr Louise Livesey, feminist writer and senior lecturer at the University of Gloucestershire, agreed that schools must not neglect women in their teaching:

"It is important to reflect the achievements of women in school curriculums if we are ever going to challenge the perception that girls have no future in breaking new ground. 

Marking public examples of women's achievements should not be beyond an education system in the 21st century". 

It’s my belief that the contributions of women should permeate every school subject – and not just tacked on as an afterthought.

Here’s five extraordinary women I think every child should learn about in school.

[caption id="attachment_5930" align="alignleft" width="176"] Aphra Behn, by John Riley (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Aphra Behn

Little is known about the early life of the seventeenth century playwright, poet and translator Aphra Behn. It’s believed she was born in England in around 1640. She worked as a spy for Charles II, and began writing for the theatre in 1670. She went on to become one of the most prolific dramatists in Britain, writing and staging 19 plays and contributing to many more, and published two collections of poetry, four novels and a number of short stories.  She died in 1689.

Although her works were popular in their time, by the 19th century they’d fallen out of favour. In the 20th century, however, she came to be recognised as a major figure in Restoration literature. Virginia Woolf wrote, “All women together, ought to let flowers fall upon the grave of Aphra Behn ... for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”.

Rosalind Franklin

[caption id="attachment_5934" align="alignright" width="156"] Rosalind Franklin's x-ray image of DNA (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Francis Crick and James Watson were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 for their 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA, but few people now remember the third contributor to their research.

Born in 1920, Rosalind Franklin showed talent in mathematics and science from a young age. Despite resistance from her father, who wanted her to become a social worker, she studied natural sciences at Cambridge.

Her use of x-ray diffraction to study the structure of proteins led to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, in a series of images described by biologist J D Bernal as “amongst the most beautiful x-ray photographs of any substance ever taken”.

Franklin was not invited to co-author Crick and Watson’s paper on DNA, even though they had used her experimental data extensively. It was not until 25 years later, long after Franklin’s untimely death from cancer in 1958, that her contribution was eventually formally recognised.



[caption id="attachment_5939" align="alignleft" width="231"] Audrey Hepburn in Somalia (art-es-anna, Flickr)[/caption]

Audrey Hepburn

Although best known as the doe-eyed star of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn was also a humanitarian activist. Her experiences during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War Two gave her a lifelong desire to help impoverished and vulnerable children.  In 1989 she became a UNICEF international ambassador, visiting countries around the world in support of UNICEF’s education, food aid, vaccination and clean water programmes.

She believed that she had a duty to help others: "Since the world has existed, there has been injustice. But it is one world, the more so as it becomes smaller, more accessible. There is just no question that those who have should give to those who have nothing.”

[caption id="attachment_5944" align="alignright" width="194"] Margaret Thatcher (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Margaret Thatcher

Loathe or love her, it is impossible to deny the impact that Baroness Thatcher, the UK’s first (and so far only) female prime minister, had on the political landscape. She became involved in Conservative politics in the late 1940s, and was elected as MP for Finchley in 1958. She rose through the party to become education secretary, and subsequently leader of the opposition. She became prime minister at the general election in 1979 and served until 1990.

Dubbed ‘The Iron Lady’ by the Soviet media for her uncompromising approach, she was a champion of the free market and was committed to reducing the power of trade unions, which she saw as a threat to commercial interests. Her policy of privatisation of state utilities saw an unprecedented transfer of public assets into private hands.

Thatcher’s death in 2013 saw scenes of both mourning and jubilation – a testament to how significant and polarising a figure she remains.



[caption id="attachment_5948" align="alignleft" width="165"] Malala Yousafzai addresses UNICEF Girl Summit 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Malala Yousafzai

Born in 1997 in northern Pakistan, Malala began blogging and speaking about education rights when still an adolescent. In retribution, she was shot by a Taliban gunman in October 2012. Miraculously, with the help of doctors in Pakistan and the UK, Malala survived the shooting and made a full recovery.

She continues to campaign for education equality for girls, and in 2014 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest ever Nobel laureate.

We have a poster of Malala on the wall in the lunch room at The Key. Every day, she inspires us with her courage and reminds us of the hardships girls in many parts of the world have to go through to get access to education.

We hope that these remarkable women inspire you too. Members of The Key for School Leaders can also read our article about gender equality policies, which looks at how schools have embedded gender equality in the curriculum and their ethos.

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