The “role of women” in Ontario school history narratives

by Rose Fine-Meyer

In yesterday’s post, Seneca undergrad Jvalin Vijayakumaran found that there has been a cursory integration of women in the current grade 7 & 8 Ontario history curriculum. His research supports what scholars have found since the 1970s, that women’s historical experiences are either missing or are limited in their inclusion in school history textbooks and resources. The response by curriculum developers and textbook publishers over the past four decades, has been a ‘piecemeal’ approach, adding women where possible. Only a re-structuring of the history curriculum, one that allows for women’s initiatives, support of family, and their leadership within their communities can women find their own voices in the history curricula.

The challenge in bringing women’s historical experiences into provincial school history curricula is fitting women’s voices into a well established national narrative of great military and industrial men that is linked to resources and pedagogical strategies. Topics related to women are often examined separately, and with limited integration into the main historical study. It’s similar to the way we address recycling: we organize our recyclables into coloured bins rather than pass laws that require all products be sold in compostable packages. Canadian history textbooks have done the same thing, by noting the “role of women,” as isolated discussion points throughout the text, rather than alter the dominant narrative.

In the case of the two world wars, for example, history textbooks focus on women serving their country as nurses and in munitions factories. These topics neatly fit into war chapters that explore technology and battles. What we do not find is a chapter devoted to the labour of mothers and daughters, women volunteers and war resisters, or women workers in non-war fields, providing significant economic support. Although Canadian historians have published widely on women’s history, few stories have entered school textbooks. There are a number of reasons for this: the approval method for textbooks, the costs of publishing, and the ways curriculum revisions take place. Only a complete re-structuring of the history curriculum – one that would allow for women’s leadership in communities, homes, and work – would result in women’s voices finding a fully integrated place in the history curricula.

As a regular stakeholder who attends Ministry of Education curriculum releases, I have been surprised with government reactions to my suggestions for change. Curriculum writers proudly point to the “small steps” that have taken place in having a more inclusive curriculum, but in response, I note the multiple decades in which women have lobbied for change.

The second wave women’s movement activism of the 1960s and 1970s, based on a belief in social justice, was the driving force behind a variety of research, conferences, publications and policy changes that worked to bring women’s voices into the curricula. What resulted was that in the 1980s and 1990s new course units and resources that focused on women’s history. Educators who regularly participated in feminist workshops and events were exposed to a rich dialogue about women’s experiences. Independent publishers and women’s scholars made available scholarship in women’s history. The work to include women in courses also relied heavily on a variety of community networks. But without mandatory gender equity curriculum policies, including women in teaching history has meant different things to different people. The sheer diversity of options meant that women’s history became a ‘grab-bag’ of content, pedagogy, social activism, and the maintenance of the status quo.

Textbooks in the 1980s and 1990s devoted only token references to women. A 1989 survey of history textbooks found that only 12.8 percent included any reference to a woman, including passing references such as “Elizabeth Simcoe had accompanied her husband to Canada.” Small publishers such as The Women’s Press, New Hogtown Press, Green Dragon Press, House of Anansi Press, Second Story Press, worked to get materials about women in the hands of educators in Ontario. The Women’s Bookstore was a place for educators to gather and access books. In many ways these women’s networks still provide an essential link for educators.

By the 2000s, more textbooks were including women, but additional resources were still needed, and women’s history organizations, such as the Ontario Women’s History Network (OWHN), held annual conferences where teachers obtained materials. The Canadian Committee on Women’s History (CCWH) also made links between scholars in the field and teachers in schools. But for the most part, teachers were left to access their own resources. See my article, “The Ontario Women’s History Network: Linking Teachers, Scholars, and History Communities,” for a history of OWHN.

In 2013, a new history curriculum emerged – teaching students to think historically through the development of students’ inquiry skills, from a disciplinary perspectives. Peter Seixas and Penney Clark have been at the forefront of this pedagogical movement in Canada. The expectation is that historical thinking skills will provide opportunities for greater critical analysis of national narratives, including their masculinist characteristics. There are no studies to date that demonstrate how historical thinking skills will support gender equity of historical narratives, and a cursory examination of the 2013 Ontario history curriculum found traditional language of the “role of women” and the “contributions of women” standard. A rewriting of the Ontario history curriculum in 2018 to incorporate Indigenous knowledges and perspectives has yet to be finalized, but the hope is that by altering the traditional male colonial framework, women’s historical narratives will find a stronger voice. (Editor’s Note: See yesterday’s post for a cursory exploration of this curriculum.)

While incremental change occurred over these decades, reform that would make women’s distinct historical experiences the cornerstone of history education have yet to come to fruition. This is disappointing given the increase in gender-based violence and attack on women’s human rights. The “#MeToo” movement has influenced educators to raise the feminist consciousness of all students. To do so will require a fundamental assessment of our historically entrenched patriarchal structure. Stronger educational controls, part of the conservative agenda in Ontario government, may not see gender equity a priority, but teachers will continue to address the absence of women in history curricula as a representative of the social realities in which we all live.


Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer is a Senior Lecturer in the Masters of Teaching program at OISE, University of Toronto. She is President of Ontario Heritage Fairs Association (OHFA) and an executive member of Ontario Women’s History Network (OWHN). She is the recipient of The Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012) and The Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching Canadian History (2007).

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