South-East Europe Textbook Network

Teaching Practice


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Teaching Practice

Bojan Aleksov

Teaching Women’s and Gender History

Some practical tips how to integrate issues from women’s history and introduce gender concepts in history teaching in Southeast Europe

1. Introduction

History of and issues pertaining to women are almost nonexistent in school curricula and textbooks in history in Southeast Europe. Neither are gender theories represented in analysis and explanations of historical events and processes. Given the complexity of education reform it is difficult to expect that this would change soon. Therefore, teachers in elementary and secondary schools should not expect state initiative and proposals how to introduce women’s history or gender related historical narrative but rely on their own initiative and look for support elsewhere.

2. Where to look

First of all, there are now Women’s Study centers in almost every larger urban center in Southeast Europe. They give courses and might provide additional reading and other teaching materials. A short guide to Gender studies and Women’s studies in Southeast Europe is published in Miroslav Jovanoviæ, Slobodan Naumoviæ, eds., Gender Relations in South Eastern Europe: Historical Perspectives on Womanhood and Manhood in 19th and 20th Century (Belgrade: Udruženje za društvenu istoriju, Graz: Institut für Geschichte der Universität Graz, Abteilung für Südosteuropäische Geschichte).

This edited volume is a pioneering attempt of local scholars to deal with women’s issues in last two centuries of Southeast European history using methods from a wide range of social disciplines. The English language volume brings a theoretical article by Austrian historian and anthropologist Michael Mitterauer on “Gender Roles in History Teaching:” Of special importance for history teachers is also the article of Krassimira Daskalova on “Women, Nationalism and Nation-State in Bulgaria (1800-1940s),” which shows how a focus on women and gender concepts bring new light and enrich our interpretation of the most important historical forces and processes in the last two centuries, and which in turn we need to share with our pupils. In addition, this volume brings a large bibliography of works cited by article authors as well as other relevant works treating gender issues in the region, and is thus extremely useful for teachers in need of local language literature. The same publishers are behind yet another recent English language volume Slobodan Naumoviæ and Miroslav Jovanoviæ, eds., Childhood in South East Europe: Historical Perspectives an Growing Up in the 19th and 20th Century (Belgrade,Graz: 2001) and related additional teaching material that in light of gender theory bring yet another, childhood or children perspective in teaching history of Southeast Europe.

The Central European University in Budapest and its Department of Gender Studies ( organize summer courses (, which are open to school teachers from Southeast Europe and provide many additional training programs helpful in preparing for teaching women’s and gender history. Open Society Institute ( and Open Society foundations in each of the Southeast European countries provide grants for training, acquiring readings and teaching materials and usually have special sections dealing exclusively with women’s and gender issues. Having offices in all major towns in Southeast Europe, OSI is probably the easiest institution to acquire contact with. Besides participating in already existing training and support programs, teachers can propose their own projects and initiatives connected to introducing gender and women’s history in history teaching. Information about other important institutions, networks and foundations can be found at,, The most useful site with teaching contents and advice for introducing women’s history into history teaching can be found at

3. Introducing Women and Gender in History Teaching. Some Practical Tips

Teachers can introduce women and gender in history teaching and thus fill the lack thereof even without much theoretical background and training. For the beginning teachers might

prepare or ask pupils to prepare and present material about some important women in history and thus slightly straighten the unbalance in the representation of women and men in history textbooks and curricula. Alternatively, teachers can acquire statistics about male and female (il)literacy or mortality rates at birth in different countries and different periods and analyze with pupils how are these related to economic and general development and welfare. Studies on various women’s associations in the past and especially on women’s struggle for the right to vote are also easily available and could be integrated in teaching.

Of special importance is to show how historic change and “progress” do not affect men and women in the same way. As Joan Kelly-Gadol showed in her pioneering article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, (edited by Renate Bridenthal, Claudia Koonz, and Susan Stuard), for some women renaissance meant a retreat in their status, rights and freedoms. The same type of analysis might be applied to other cases. During the first centuries of Christianity women played an extremely important role in mission and pastoral care. Some missionary women were canonized as equal-to-apostles while many were consecrated as deaconesses. This consecration was later abolished and pastoral care was performed exclusively by men. Within Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches the reintroduction of deaconesses is only recently discussed.

Let’s take a local example: When the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire passed a general suffrage law it was directed at men only. Not only that women were not given a right to vote but those women who already had the right to vote on local level, based on the previous, property related census, lost it with the general MALE suffrage. Teachers might also use examples from social or economic history. One of the greatest consequences of modernization and industrialization for example is the so-called feminization of agriculture. Once men were employed in industry or moved to towns in search of work, most women were forced to perform the hardest land labor, previously done by men, in addition to their regular household, garden and cattle duties, doubling their burden and causing consequently decline in agricultural production as well. Another example could be taken from the very recent period such as “the emancipation” of women during socialism. Emancipation was then mostly equated with out-of-home employment and was not followed by family or cultural emancipation. Thus, factory work for many women simply meant additional work and not a source of emancipation.

Teachers can also engage their pupils to search for some conclusions themselves and acquire knowledge and methods of historical understanding. One example is that pupils record memories of certain historical experience from their grandparents (neighbors, other relatives, etc). Then, pupils could be asked to analyze as to how much memories of grandmothers and grandfathers differ in choice of events, modes of narration, focus, etc. In such a task, pupils can develop a historical methodology, gender conscience and some understanding of history as memory and history as textbook narrative. Some of the best examples are certainly narratives and memories about wars, where women and men usually have different roles and experiences. Our history books tell us about battles and political decisions in wars but our grandmothers are a source for everyday life during wars. This knowledge should be also shared and analyzed.

In conclusion, one should not wait for major changes in history curricula and textbooks. There are plenty of opportunities for teachers to introduce women’s history and gender in history teaching and they can even get support to do so. Eventually, this would not only enrich the knowledge our pupils gain, but could also develop and bolster their interest and sympathy for studying history.