Women’s legacy: Our cultural heritage for equity

Published: 26 May 2023

Centre for Sustainable Solutions’ Education officer Ben Murphy recently presented at the Women’s Legacy Transnational conference. Ben has been working as a consultant with the ERASMUS+ team on the ‘Womens Legacy: our cultural heritage for equity’ project over the past two years, and the conference marked the culmination of the project.

Centre for Sustainable Solutions’ Education officer Ben Murphy recently presented at the Women’s Legacy Transnational conference held in the East End of Glasgow. Ben has been working as a consultant with the ERASMUS+ team on the ‘Womens Legacy: our cultural heritage for equity’ project over the past two years, and the conference marked the culmination of the project.

Recent research from the End Sexism in Schools Campaign has highlighted how children in the UK are still living off a restricted diet of white, male authors and white, male protagonists. The stories we tell young people in schools become the reference point for their future values, ambitions, and understandings. Better representation is not a silver bullet for improving diversity, equity and inclusion, but understanding ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ is a crucial first step in tackling gender discrimination in schools and creating more just societies.

Gender equality is a right. Fulfilling this right offers one of the best chances we have to meet the most pressing challenges of our time—from economic crises and lack of health care to climate change, gender-based violence, racism and escalating geopolitical tensions. Women are not only more affected by these issues, but also possess the ideas and leadership to solve them. Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment is integral to each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and we will only arrive at some form of societal equity by embedding the rights of women and girls across SDG implementation.

Gender-equitable education systems empower girls and boys and promote the development of life skills – like self-management, communication, negotiation and critical thinking – that young people need to succeed. Women’s full and equal participation in all facets of society is a fundamental human right. Significant barriers throughout the education system in relation to access, content, teaching and learning practices, and learning outcomes are creating unjust education settings for girls and women. Around the world, from politics to entertainment to the workplace, women and girls are largely underrepresented.

Creative Commons: Ryan Brown/UN Women

A recent research report found that only 2% of pupils in England study a book by a female author. Rachel Fenn, of End Sexism in Schools, said ‘for the next generation to grow up challenging a patriarchal view of the world, both boys and girls need to be exposed to strong and empowering representations of women, not the voiceless victims and servants we see repeatedly in the perennially popular texts taught in English lessons.’

According to Engender, a feminist organisation seeking to ensure equal rights for men and women, gender stereotyping in Scottish schools, is 'a product of the sexism that is ingrained within our education system'. Close the Gap, an organisation working to tackle gender inequality in the workplace, has highlighted how gender discrimination in education settings can be a key driver for inequalities later in life. Both organisations have highlighted how underrepresentation and stereotyping can play an important role in influencing the confidence and aspirations of young women. Local and national education policy must do more to support educators to break down stereotyping, they urged.

The Women’s Legacy conference

Over the last two and a half years, I’ve been working as a consultant on Women’s Legacy 'Our Cultural Heritage for Equity', an ERASMUS funded educational equity project. This is in fact the last ERASMUS funded education project that will happen in Glasgow – a city whose young people have benefitted from more than £2m in funding from the EU since 2016.

The European project exists to make a decisive contribution to the inclusion of women protagonists in history and culture and their legacy in educational content. The five intellectual products made by the project team will be published in digital, accessible and free format, to facilitate and encourage the transmission in the classrooms of a complete and truly universal culture, with the aim of recovering the European cultural heritage and to help eradicate gender inequalities from the grassroots.

My work has seen me contribute to the literature catalogue, building a bank of resources that supports educators to share the diversity of voices and texts that characterise our collective history and experience. Working alongside colleagues in Spain, Lithuania, Italy and Catalonia, we have built a repository of over 500 works and authors and texts by influential, forgotten and inspiring female writers throughout history. Recognising the intersectionality of the mission, the team has been committed to diversity, with many of the works coming from further marginalised voices – working class, black, single-parent, queer, migrant, Gaelic and Catalan writers have all been included, for example.

The culmination of the project was an international conference at Celtic Park in Glasgow where colleagues and key national and local stakeholders heard from the project team about the work. At the conference I shared stories from a selection of resources, including historical trailblazers like Ieva Simonaitytė, who as a young Lithuanian girl from a peasant family taught herself to read after losing her father and overcoming tuberculosis at the age of 5. She made the most of her local library to delve into German and Lithuanian literature. In 1935, she published Aukštujų Šimonių likimas (The Fate of Šimoniai from Aukštuja). For this work she received the state literary award, a pension, and she subsequently dedicated the remainder of her life to literature. She is now one of the most celebrated and famous authors in Lithuania. Simonaitytė died in Vilnius and was buried at the Writers' Hill of the Antakalnis Cemetery.

Ben Murphy, presenting the literature catalogue

Elizabeth Hamilton (1756–23 July 1816) was a Scottish essayist, poet, satirist, and novelist, who in both her prose and fiction contributed to discussions over the education and rights of women. She attended a day school from the age of eight, but her formal education finished in her early teens. Always a curious and eager reader, she continued to seek out ‘serious’ books, developing the beginnings of her lifelong interest in moral and educational philosophy. In 1808, Hamilton wrote The Cottagers of Glenburnie (1808), a celebrated tale of Scottish family life, casting a critical eye on hardships and inequities endured by women in domestic Scottish life. The book also presented a lengthy discourse on child education. Hamilton wanted to ensure her work wasn’t just for the well-educated middle classes and to ensure accessibility, it was published in several different editions to have wider appeal.

The catalogue also includes several contemporary writers like Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie and Arundhati Roy. Along with Amanda Thompson, Jessica Brough’s profile highlights the cultural creativity on show in contemporary Scottish literature. Jessica Brough is a writer and psycholinguistics Ph.D. student at the University of Edinburgh and the founder of Fringe of Colour – a grassroots, Edinburgh-based multi-award-winning arts initiative for Black and Brown people/People of Colour. Brough’s research focuses on the social effects of language production and language biases. The Fringe of Colour takes place in June this year.

Amanda Thompson’s ‘A Scot’s dictionary of Nature’ brings together - for the first time - the deeply expressive vocabulary customarily used to describe land, wood, weather, birds, water and walking in Scotland.

Kathleen Jamie became the Scots Makar in 2021 and has written extensively about nature and society. Coming from a non-literary background, Jamie feels as though 'poetry abides at the heart of Scottish culture, in all our languages, old and new'. Jamie published her first pamphlet of poems while at Edinburgh University and many will know her from her essays published pre-2005. Since then, her award-winning works of nature writing have extended and enhanced a genre that Jamie herself has criticised, describing it as 'colonised by middle-class white men'.

These are just a small number of examples from the literature catalogue, which is free and accessible. Alongside literature the project has produced other resources on music and art and a STEM teacher-training course. One highlight is information about Eunice Foote, an amateur climate scientist in the mid 19th century who essentially discovered climate change. Foote was the first scientist to conclude that certain gases warmed when exposed to sunlight and that rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels would change atmospheric temperature, thus affecting our climate. Like many of her contemporaries her work was ignored – a sadly familiar story!

Talat Yaqoob, Director of Equate Scotland, a national organisation working to improve gender equality in STEM areas of education and employment, told The Ferret that 'stubborn gender stereotypes [are] one of the key reasons the gender gap in education isn’t closing'. Whilst education is one of the most undervalued and underpaid sectors, educators must try and breathe some new life into curriculums, classrooms and pedagogies that are too pale, male and stale. Education can act as one of the drivers of climate action and be a beacon of social justice, rather than perpetuate inequities. This starts with recognising women’s contribution to our cultural and scientific history.

First published: 26 May 2023