Guns for boys, gender for girls in the First World War classroom

One thing I’m intrigued to watch during the First World War and Anzac centenaries is how the war is taught in schools. Especially in the context of new curricula in England and Australia, will the 2014-2018 centenary invigorate or enervate (or distort?) learning about the conflict? In May, Ann-Marie Einhaus and Catriona Pennell released their excellent report The First World War in the Classroom, which considers this and other questions in the context of England. As a researcher keen on public engagement, I was particularly interested in Einhaus and Pennell’s observation that while many resources incorporating the latest academic research are now freely available, a challenge for time-pressed teachers is to find their way amongst them: “Participants in our focus groups voiced concerns about the sheer range and wealth of sources as overwhelming”.[1] I was therefore eager to read the latest addition to The Guardian’s “How to teach…” series, How to teach… the first world war by Alex Ogg.

Ogg’s piece is a handy roundup of both traditional and newer literary and historical resources, mostly British, for teaching the First World War. But it also contains something of a gendered sting.

Ogg draws attention to the British Library’s collection of First World War sources and expert articles, including Susan Grayzel’s Changing lives: gender expectations and roles during and after World War One. This piece, Ogg suggests, will be “especially helpful if the girls in your class aren’t as excited by military hardware as the boys.”

Now, I’m not a teacher trying to motivate 30 or so teenagers towards concentration, but oh, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard some variation on the comment, “You study war history? Like actual battles? But you’re a girl!” From conversations with my many women colleagues, especially those taking a primarily military-political approach rather than a social-cultural one, I know this is far too common.

Thankfully, I never heard it – either explicitly or implicitly – from any of my wonderful, influential History and English teachers. They approached their subjects as stories of human experience, and we as students were simply interested in what we were interested in (hopefully we were interested in something). I was interested in war history: causes, courses and consequences.

I don’t think Ogg means to seriously suggest that guns are for boys and gender is for girls in the First World War classroom (or that gender during and after the war had nothing whatsoever to do with men). The line seems more of a tongue-in-cheek one in an engaging piece that also pokes fun at Michael Gove (what else from The Guardian?) and references Rihanna.

Still, surely even a hint that girls won’t – or can’t, or shouldn’t – be interested in the events of battlefields is a wink and a nudge too far in 2014.


[1] Ann-Marie Einhaus and Catriona Pennell, The First World War in the Classroom: Teaching and the Construction of Cultural Memory Final Project Report, May 2014 [Accessed 22 July 2014], p. 72.


7 thoughts on “Guns for boys, gender for girls in the First World War classroom

  1. Your post reminded me of Karen Hagemann’s call in her keynote talk at the recent Australian Historical Association conference for historians to focus on what wars are actually about – violence. And the fact that at a history of war session at the Australian Historical Association conference a couple of years ago both the speakers and the audience were mostly women.

    The same issue applies to so many other areas of life too. It’s not surprising that few women work in IT when all through school the myth that only boys are capable or interested in technology is expressed as a fact by parents and teachers.

    When girls are deterred because they hear that only boys are interested in military or IT, it is hardly surprising that female participation in those areas of study are low. The stupid thing is that the people peddling these myths then point to low enrolments as proof that girls are not physically capable of interest and ability in such subjects!

    • ‘What wars are actually about – violence.’ Yes indeed. One of the places my PhD thesis is coming from is a desire to integrate military-political and social-cultural approaches to war. These have been traditionally done separately, by different groups of historians, often divided along gendered lines. This, thankfully, is all changing, as shown by Joan Beaumont’s recent integrated history Broken Nation and the women-dominated war sessions you remember from the AHA in Adelaide in 2012.

      Gendered parent, teacher and societal expectations still abound about what children should be interested in and good at, don’t they? Here’s looking forward to more progress on that front.

      Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting, Yvonne.

  2. Thanks for your kind words. An interesting response. Yes, the original comment was tongue-in-cheek. I write a lot academically and the comment subconsciously draws on a paper I produced trying to understand the way that boys of a certain age became fascinated with WWII (and particularly military hardware). I also looked specifically at gender difference within that. As teachers, well, when we’re not being crushed with workload, we are encouraged to ‘differentiate’ to engage interest. Hence, in the same article, I mentioned the link to the Christmas football incident as a way of motivating boys. Now, of course, the danger there is that I could be accused of reinforcing stereotypes – and I know many women are fanatical about football. However, on a pragmatic level, teachers will do whatever they can to engage pupils. Which is why I chose the Paths of Glory clip, as it says a lot about humanity (war visuals, of WWI in particular, are not overflowing with images of women – where they exist at all). So the link to that essay was a way of broadening the picture about the impact of the conflict away from the battlefront. But yes, I do accept that there is that danger of reinforcing stereotypes whilst trying to acknowledge pre-existing differences and gender dynamics as a way of getting students interested in a subject. As most teachers will tell you, that’s always a bit of a trade-off.

    • Many thanks for reading and commenting, Alex. I have so much respect for what teachers do (often when underpaid, overworked and underappreciated…) in trying to create lightbulb moments of interest, curiosity and knowledge in students. If it’s football or ‘hardware’ or gender roles that creates those, in boys or girls, then great! Obviously teachers will use whatever they feel is best suited to their own particular classes.

      I’m interested in the paper you mention; is it available somewhere?

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