Making Public History

Or, How to Teach Six Year Old Girls About the Suffrage Movement

Making Public History

People  often underestimate children. They underestimate their capacity to understand things about the past. Yes, 1990 was ages ago. (“I wasn’t even born yet!” One said. “It was a GOOGLEPLEX ago,” said another who liked big words.) 1970 was even longer ago. 1913? That was when the dinosaurs lived. 

But there are plenty of things that they can understand, and quite well at that. This evening, I  volunteered to come in to speak with a group of Sparks. (Incidentally, this photo contains a fraction of those who were there – imagine twenty-five little girls in pink and blue running around – no wonder I look a little bit frazzled.) I was initially invited to come in on International Women’s Day (the invitation came from “Rainbow Spark”, whose alter ego is a serious business history professor at Carleton University, and one of my teachers.), but it happened to fall on the week before the Underhill Colloquium, where I was already beholden to present my research, finish off my research, move furniture, and so on, we arranged for me to come in this week instead. Regardless. How do you explain the infinitely complex women’s suffrage movement to twenty-five six year olds? Do you begin with Seneca Falls, 1848? With the rabble-rousing suffragettes throwing bricks in Britain? Hunger strikers against President Wilson? When?

First off, forget dates. It is interesting to get them to speculate on when they think that women got the right to vote. Through consensus, they decided that it must have been 1970. But really, dates aren’t what you want them to get out of this.

Step One: get a costume. Or some sort of visual aid, like photographs. Personally, I prefer the costume route, not because of the inherent associations with childhood (which I question), but because it’s so much easier to interpret the past to them when you can use your own body and clothing as a prop. It promotes interest – who is this strange person? After being introduced (as “Hazel”, a special guest), one of the girls asked me about what I was wearing. I led in with the “in the time of your grandmother’s grandmother”, which is an easier thing for them to grasp than a date or a number of years. I had them compare what I was wearing to what they were wearing. A lot of them fixated on the small detail of my hatpin. They were mightily impressed that I couldn’t shake off my hat with it in. I also asked them about why they thought I was wearing something like this, and it wasn’t just because I was “oldey-timey”. I had seen them doing cartwheels and playing tag earlier, and I asked them – do you think that I can do things like that in this dress? There was a unanimous “no”.

Step Two: ask them questions. Lots of questions. Don’t lecture. Give them information in small pieces, leading them along. Why do you think I wear this? What do you think I learned in school? (Rainbow Spark pointed out that a lot of them went to a school in an older building that still had signs for the girls and boys sections – why did they separate everyone?) And then of course – what does my sash say? What does “votes” mean? I actually got a very coherent answer from the hive mind. (Rinse and repeat Step Two throughout the session. Never forget Step Two.)

Step Three: Put the girls in another person’s shoes. Get them to think about what you’re trying to say, and get them to relate to it, emotionally. After having “voting” explained, we had a mock vote, on what kind of ice cream we would theoretically have for dinner. The initial vote was split pretty well, about 16-11, chocolate:vanilla. Then, I said that only the people wearing blue could vote in the next round. We got a very different result. Then, only those wearing pink had the vote. I could have also done leaders-only, what color socks/hair, if they wore glasses, etc. I asked them how it felt, not to be able to vote, to choose. Then I dropped the bombshell – a hundred years ago, in 1913, women were not allowed to vote.

Step Four: Discuss, always asking questions. Let them talk. I asked them why they thought people didn’t want women voting (and they all commented on how strange the notion was). Earlier, before I was introduced, they had been discussing cookie-selling safety, which included never crossing the street unless you were with an adult. One girl had piped up “unless you are an adult”. I told them that a hundred years ago, sometimes even women who were adults were not allowed to cross the street or go for walks without an adult – a man. (A bit of an oversimplification, but it was common for women to be escorted everywhere). We had them, again, speculate on when women did get the right to vote. It was difficult when I was asked by the Spark leader – well, when did women get the right to vote? Not an easy question to answer. My response? “It’s complicated.” First women in Manitoba in provincial elections in 1916, then, Saskatchewan and Alberta, then eventually BC and Ontario, federally after the war… and finally Quebec in 1940. I didn’t bombard them with dates. I listed a few provinces, but they understood that it didn’t happen all at once. At that age (at many ages), they don’t care about dates. History isn’t about dates. It’s about experiences, about the sequence, not the exact dates or the politicians who made it happen. I think of history as, well, a story, with many different subplots. I just gave them a hint at one of them.

Step Five: reinforce. They played games later on, but they got to vote on which game to choose. They chose Simon Says, and Rainbow Owl made it “Oldey-Timey Simon Says” – “Simon Says put on your long skirt,” “Simon Says put your hair in a bun,” “Simon Says put in your hatpin,” etc., and they acted it out. They got to draw pictures – of me in my dress, hat and sash, and then on the reverse, they got to draw a modern day women. A few gave the latter blue or purple hair. We duly inspected them, and pronounced them masterpieces.

Yes, I don’t know how much sank in. Yes, I was honest with them at the very end, when they asked me about my age. I said that I had two answers: 23 and 123. How could this be? I am a student who likes to talk about the “olden days”. And then I impressed upon them how much fun learning history was. Hey, you get to dress up and teach people about it. How much fun is that? (And read books. Lots and lots of books.)

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One Response to Making Public History

  1. Pingback: What is “Historical Accuracy”? | History Research Shenanigans

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