“Where are all the (non-white, non-elite) women?” Examining issues of diversity and intersectionality in the creation of women’s history lesson plans for Ontario educators

Cecilia Butler, working as a reamer in the Small Arms Ltd. section of the John Inglis Company munitions plant in Canada in 1943. Photo credit: National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada / e000761869.

Tifanie Valade

This is the fifth entry in a monthly series on Thinking Historically. See the Introduction here.

While history classes are often viewed as a neutral, apolitical venue for the transmission of “facts” about the past, history education is in fact a value-laden enterprise that seeks to construct and communicate overarching national narratives and national identities. Such narratives often privilege political accounts and the activities of “great” men at the expense of the experiences of everyday citizens, including women. The women who do appear are often white, of European descent, and from elite classes, and their actions are mainly profiled as they pertain to androcentric domains such as politics, war, and economics. As a result, women who are racialized, Indigenous, disabled, working class, 2SLGBTQ+, or are at the intersections of these identities, are often absent from history curricula and educational materials. As C.D. Cosentino notes “there is no hesitancy to exclude women from the telling of Canada’s past and the permission to do so is ingrained in the institutional structures that set the standards for defining which is the “right” history that should be taught”.[1]

Despite decades of efforts by women’s organizations and some history teachers to integrate women’s histories, these have been continuously sidelined in Ontario schools.[2] This has left individual history teachers who wish to integrate women’s histories with the responsibility of looking beyond curricular requirements and government-sanctioned textbooks to find their own historical sources and design lessons that highlight diverse women’s voices. Such efforts, however, are often prohibitive, as they require additional time, effort, and historical research expertise on the part of teachers who have already heavy workloads. Enter the Framing Our Past 2.0 (FOP 2.0) project. FOP 2.0 is an educational design research project created by Dr. Marie-Hélène Brunet, Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer and Professor Emerita and Distinguished University Professor Dr. Sharon Cook, based on selected chapters from Framing Our Past: Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century. The project was initiated in order to create ready-made, bilingual lesson plans for Ontario high school history teachers that meet the requirements of the Ontario curriculum and centre diverse women’s histories.

When it was first published, Framing Our Past sought to bring to light historical experiences of everyday women through oral histories and archival research, in order to “bridge the gap between the public and the archives”.[3] The editors acknowledged, however, that the text, though groundbreaking in the depth and breadth of the topics it covered, had shortcomings in its representation of women from diverse and marginalized communities, often due to issues with access to archives that feature these populations. FOP 2.0 attempts to rectify these shortcomings by adapting selected chapters from the original text with updated academic and archival sources. This has been a challenging process, however, as the unearthing of women’s voices, stories, and images that have been historically marginalized often involves substantial additional research. The process of adapting the articles from Framing Our Past has raised important questions within the research team regarding the commitment and resources necessary to engage in the vital work of moving beyond the historical narratives of white, European, elite women.

Despite the challenges encountered, FOP 2.0 has resulted in the successful creation of eight innovative women’s history lesson plans on varied topics such as household labour and technology in the 19th and 20th century; women workers during World War II; Indigenous women’s rights; South-Asian women and immigration; Canadian women journalists; 20th century women and 2SLGBTQ+ artists, Canadian women and political activism; and a critical re-examining of The Person’s Case. As part of the iterative design research process, each lesson plan is submitted to educational experts, academics, and teachers for analysis and feedback. The results of these consultations are then used to modify and improve the lessons before they’re published for free public use in conjunction with the project’s partner Canada’s History.

In order to meet the requirements of the Ontario curriculum, the activities in each of the lesson plans engage with the four historical thinking concepts that appear in the Ontario high school curricular guidelines – namely historical significance, cause and consequence, continuity and change, and historical perspective. This disciplinary approach encourages students to learn through discovery, to consider a variety of historical perspectives and to analyze how historical accounts are constructed. This allows students to move beyond a content-acquisition learning model to one where they actively engage with historiographic methods. Critics of historical thinking note, however, that the disciplinary approach can result in an objectified, sanitized method of historical inquiry reliant on “deliberative distance” which leaves out questions of identity, power, politics and privilege.[4]

These questions are, of course, of vital importance to understanding gendered histories. The FOP 2.0 lesson plans therefore move beyond these four concepts of historical thinking into what Anderson terms “the narrative dimension”[5] to interrogate norms surrounding gender and sexuality, and to encourage students to question how inequitable power relations underpin intersecting forms of oppression. In so doing, the lessons allow teachers to guide students from simply acknowledging women’s presence in history, to exploring connections between women’s experiences in the past and their own roles in maintaining or combatting gendered inequities as active historical agents today. This responds to the Ontario history curriculum’s overarching goal of developing “responsible, active citizens within the diverse communities to which they belong”, and “critically thoughtful and informed citizens who value an inclusive society”.[6] It is hoped that the ready-made pedagogical tools developed through FOP 2.0 will make it easier for Ontario teachers to integrate women’s history into their classrooms beyond the exploits of a few well-known figures, and to recognize the actions of diverse everyday women who have contributed to Canada’s history.

Tifanie Valade is a doctoral candidate in the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. She currently works as a research assistant on the development of lesson plans for the Framing Our Past 2.0 Project. The Framing Our Past 2.0 Project is supported by a CRSH-SSHRC Partnership Engage grant, The Faculty of Education of The University of Ottawa, The Ontario Women’s History Network, and Canada’s History.


[1] Christine Danielle Cosentino, ‘The Treatment of Women’s History in the Grade Ten Ontario Curriculum and Selected Textbooks’ (Master’s thesis, Halifax, Mount Saint Vincent University, 2008), 31, http://ec.msvu.ca/xmlui/handle/10587/900.

[2] R. Fine-Meyer and K. Llewellyn, ‘Women Rarely Worthy of Study: A History of Curriculum Reform in Ontario Education’, Historical Studies in Education / Revue d’histoire de l’éducation 30, no. 1 (22 March 2018), https://doi.org/10.32316/hse/rhe.v30i1.4541.

[3] Sharon A. Cook, Lorna R. McLean, and Kate O’Rourke, eds., Framing Our Past: Canadian Women’s History in the Twentieth Century (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), xxiv.

[4] For critiques of the use of historical thinking in history education see: Scott Pollock, ‘Education in the Age of Fracture: A Historical Analysis of the Development of Ontario’s 2013 and 2015 Canadian and World Studies Curriculum Documents’ (Doctoral Dissertation, Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 2017); Samantha Cutrara, Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New ‘We’ (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2020).

[5] Stephanie Anderson, ‘The Stories Nations Tell: Sites of Pedagogy, Historical Consciousness, and National Narratives’, Canadian Journal of Education / Revue Canadienne de l’éducation 40, no. 1 (2017): 1–38.

[6] Ontario Ministry of Education, ‘The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9 and 10: Canadian and World Studies’, 2018, 6.

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