Finding the women in history

By Karin Doull

Karin Doull is an Honorary Research Fellow at Roehampton University. She has been a fellow of the Historical Association was a Chartered Teacher of History (CT Hist) and writes extensively for the Primary History journal. She is also active in promoting history through workshops, webinars and conference seminars.

Karin is the editor of the book ‘Teaching a Diverse Primary Curriculum’ Teaching a Diverse Primary Curriculum | Sage Publications Inc

I am not sure I remember when I realised that history was not telling me the stories that I wanted to hear. I think the first time that I did something about it was with my undergraduate dissertation: “Fisherwomen in the Northeast of Scotland”. Here through, oral histories and archive accounts, I explored women’s experiences and heard their voices. I studied the industry through tales not usually told. The fisherwomen, fishwives and herring lassies were integral to the fishing. However, their contribution was often overlooked or seen as a picturesque illustration for a newspaper by-line. It was unlucky to meet a women on your way to the boat but acceptable for her to carry you to it on her shoulders so that you would not start your journey wet. The contradiction between the absolutely central contribution of the women and almost total lack of recognition of the importance of their histories created in me a passion to do things differently.

Newhaven Fishwives by Hill & Adamson, 1843-47 Fisherwomen, fishwives and herring lassies were integral to the fishing industry of northeast Scotland, however their contribution was often overlooked or seen as a picturesque illustration for a newspaper by-line.
Newhaven Fishwives by Hill & Adamson, 1843-47, Creative Commons CC0

I suspect I was lucky to come to this perception when I did.  Early feminist historians were beginning to explore and represent feminine perspectives, the voice of the other (Bell et al 2021, Roper 2021). They sought to consider the importance of providing a more nuanced and balanced view of the past just as I came to want to explore myself.

As I became a primary teacher, I went on to discover more stories of significant and everyday women that I was drawn to and wanted to share with my class. Working in an inner city London school diversity was also important to me so many of the female characters were also black such as Harriet Tubman, Mary Seacole and Bessie Coleman. They spoke to my children about endeavour and courage. I used local history to find women associated with the area such as Hilda Hewlett, the first British woman to get her pilot’s licence. She also built aeroplanes under the railway arches in Battersea and taught her son to fly.

With these exceptional women I was also drawn to the more everyday stories.  The 1891 census had a widow, her three daughters and their female servant living along Albert Bridge Road. The girls gave their occupations as professor of singing, professor of music and author and journalist. They were well to do but poor, teaching piano and singing or sending little articles to newspapers and journals, much like the March sisters in Little Women. Through exploring the census (which I just love for the titbits it contains) I wanted children to begin to see this family and their lives.

When I look at the national curriculum requirements I seek out the female perspective. These include Hilda of Whitby, Athelflaeda and Wynflaed (first women to leave us a will) in the Anglo Saxons, Hatshepsut and Ankhesenamun in Egypt, Enheduana in Ancient Sumer. We may not find their stories in school text books. These tend to perpetuate a distorted view of history, either ignoring or belittling women’s contributions, painting them in a subordinate role (Oslar 1994, Chiponda and Wasserman 2011, 2015). In my own first published work, I included the stories of five remarkable women, Elizabeth Fry, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Bessie Colman, Margaret MacDonald, Harriet Tubman and Mary Anning (Andretti and Doull 2000). I hoped that children would be able to explore some of their inspiring stories. I have continued finding the female perspective in the articles that I write in Primary History Journal as I share my enthusiasm for women’s stories and finding women in history.


Andreetti, K., & Doull., (2000) History Ages 5-7 Leamington Spa: Scholastic 

Bell, J., Hershaman, T., and Holland, A., (2021) On This Day She: Putting Women Back in History One Day at a Time, London: Metro Publishing 

Chiponda, A. and Wasserman, J., (2011) Women in History Textbooks: What Messages does this send to the Youth? Yesterday and Today 6 (1) pp13-25

Chiponda, A. and Wasserman, J., (2015) An analysis of the visual portrayal of women in junior secondary Malawian school history textbooks. Yesterday and Today 14 pp 208-237

Oslar A., (1994) Still Hidden from History? The representation of women in recently published history textbooks Oxford Review of Education 2(2) pp 219-235

Roper, L., (2021) The growth of Gender and Woman’s History, Accessed November 2021