Teaching Sex and Gender

Professor Alison Twells, Sheffield Hallam University

The recent case at the University of Warwick, where male students suspended for sharing rape threats on an online group chat were prematurely readmitted, comes as no surprise to anyone with even a cursory acquaintance with studies of the sexual harassment of women students. NUS Reports from 2010 and 2012 detail an extensive range of harassment, ranging from casual misogyny and sexualised comments, to groping, ‘upskirting’, pressure to engage in sexual activity, and sexually violent sports club initiation rites, all amounting to a culture which involves the objectification of women and rape-supportive attitudes.

A study by psychologists at Sheffield Hallam University, my own institution, produced similar findings when 918 students responded to an online anonymous survey sent to all undergraduates in our faculty, Development and Society (as it was then named). Please linger for a second on that number: nine hundred and eighteen voluntary responses. These again revealed the widespread nature of sexualised verbal abuse and physical harassment and the extent to which it is normalised and represented as inevitable, harmless fun. The research further revealed that many male students feel uncomfortable in this culture and that many women are complicit in it, making excuses for male peers whom they assume will grow out of it to become decent men.

In the context of the Warwick case, I was interested to read the response from the Head of History, Rebecca Earle, who made quite plain her belief that the women students should have been the university’s priority. She also raised the question of what a history department might do to counteract such a toxic culture, pointing to teaching and learning opportunities in the fields of women’s and gender history and the history of sexuality.

This was precisely my motivation for rewriting a first semester, first year skills module, two years ago as ‘Making History: Sex and Gender in the Archive’. I’d become aware of how little gender history we now do as a department. While women’s history is present on many modules, and masculinity and femininity are frequently discussed, these topics are usually part of another focal concern: gender in Weimar Germany, for example, or debates about women industrial workers in the north of England. This is all good, but what is missing is an underpinning familiarity with feminist and gender theory — a far cry from the 1990s, when the origins of women’s history in the women’s movement were still very much in evidence. Twenty-plus years on, we appear to have moved away from such conceptual work, to focus much more extensively on historical content and including considerably less cultural history. I am aware that this is not the case across the board. In English Literature, for example, feminist criticism abounds. As regards history, it would be interesting to hear of experiences in other institutions; whether this rolling back of feminist pedagogy is part of a pattern; whether the political attacks that have seen the removal of Gender Studies at Budapest’s Central University University, for example, have any relation to a decline of gender history elsewhere.

So this was one motivation, but there were others. At the time of redesigning the module, I was reading a lot about teenagers and sex — mainly to get to grips with the current culture in order to support girls, both my students and my own teenage daughters. I was particularly struck by research in the US by Peggy Orenstein, who found that young women increasingly see their sexuality as something they perform for a man rather than a felt experience involving mutual pleasure and their own desire; and that sexual satisfaction was considered by many of her interviewees to have been achieved if the sex ‘didn’t hurt.’[i] My own daughters and their friends assure me that all teenage girls are interested in the history of sex, including the historical struggle women have had to know and express their own desire and to not feel shame.

Another motivation has come from thinking through the meaning for the humanities of SHU’s mission to become a leading ‘applied’ university, producing students who can engage with ‘real-world problems’ and are ‘world-ready citizens’. What does it mean when the ‘real world’ is the place where sexism endures as a pervasive and insistent force in public life, where women are routinely paid less than men, are abused on social media for just being in public; where there are Weinsteins in every walk of life, where young men get their knowledge of sex from pornographic misrepresentations of female pleasure, where sexual harassment is commonplace?

‘Making History: Sex and Gender in the Archive’ focuses on the use of local archive collections, teaching students how to locate primary sources, and how to use secondary sources to illuminate their meaning. Traditionally, the module has focused on Sheffield history; but with no real conceptual thrust, student projects have often been woolly and descriptive. Indeed students complained in the module evaluation questionnaires that the work wasn’t sufficiently challenging. What better way to remedy this state of affairs, than by the introduction of a bit of gender and queer theory?

A focus on sex and gender also enabled me to make use of some fabulous Sheffield collections. These include the papers of Mary-Anne Rawson, a Sheffield abolitionist, which allow for discussions of separate spheres, women in public, women and politics, representations of enslaved women and issues of voice. The visit to Sheffield of Frederick Douglas to Rawson’s home in 1846 provides an excellent way in to discussions of the partiality of, and racism inherent within, British abolitionists’ accounts. The Mary Anne Rawson Papers are part of the much larger HJ Wilson Collection. Wilson was Rawson’s nephew and a Liberal MP for Holmfirth, and his wife, Charlotte, was also politically active, as a liberal feminist, and particularly in the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts and related measures to rescue ‘fallen women’. The CD Acts, introduced in the 1860s to deal with the problem of venereal disease in the armed forces, were based on specific understandings of male and female sexuality: that men need sex — and that a clean supply of women had to be provided for them; that ‘natural’ women were pure, sexless ‘angels in the house’.  Students are taken aback at these debates, at the difference between eighteenth and nineteenth-century ideas, and that feminists have been discussing the sexual double standard for so long.

Charlotte Wilson of Sheffield was present with Josephine Butler at the famous hayloft incident during the Pontefract by-election campaign of 1872.

We are also fortunate to have the magnificent Edward Carpenter Collection in our city archives. Carpenter, a late nineteenth socialist and sex reformer, wrote about sex and engaged with negative constructions of same-sex desire. His partnership with George Merrill is one of most celebrated same-sex relationships of the period, while his earlier relationship with George Hukin makes us think critically about the modern nature of categories of sexuality. All this sets us up well for a discussion of the merits or otherwise of the ‘pardon’, using blogposts by Matt Houlbrook and Justin Bengry.

And then finally, we looked at masculinity across the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. One case study is Painted Fabrics Ltd., an organisation set up by women artists after the First World War to provide occupational therapy for disabled ex-servicemen. The restoration of masculinity — through paid work and pride — looms large in these sources and raises important questions about hegemonic masculinities at different historical moments. We used R. W. Connell’s work on hegemonic masculinities and, after an initial resistance to bring sociology into a history class, have had thoughtful and sometimes surprising discussions.[ii] 

What do I want to achieve from the module? First and foremost, I want to give our students necessary experience of using local archives and an understanding of gender and women’s history as important sub-disciplines. I wanted to provide them with a bit of intellectual excitement; after two years in the largely female-free A-level factory, this is new stuff in their historical studies. I am also interested in whether history can provide a context for some of their own thoughts and concerns — and a sense that issues to do with sex and gender are not only personal but have wider, structural dimensions. I wanted to introduce the possibility that history can be combined with other types of analyses to illuminate ‘real-world problems’ that are part of our daily lives, today. Can the study of history foster greater critical engagement not just with historical sources, but with related but modern-day issues regarding knowledge, authority, truth and power? But my concern is also more personal and old-fashioned than that: can seeing how men and women have negotiated such issues in the past be empowering in our lives today, leading not only to a greater resilience — that neo-liberal term — but enabling a deep engagement with the matter of living and flourishing?

Example of student work.

What did students think?  As I don’t generally find module evaluation questionnaires very useful in terms of module development, I have done my own feedback, straight after the block of lectures. I wanted a sense of what the students thought at that point, before other issues and frustrations to do with their assessment, got in the way. It was very basic. I asked them to tell me three things they’d learned, three things they’d enjoyed, and three things they’d change on the module. The latter was mainly organisational stuff: queries over assessment, some criticism of my Powerpoints, an over complex structure. There was a little bit of a demand for more feminist history; some resistance to gender history and demand for a more traditional approach (‘I would have preferred proper Sheffield history’. ‘I wanted to know about the steel industry.’) Not surprisingly, students often conflate what they had learned and what they had enjoyed:

  • [I learned] ‘That the history of gender/sexuality is classed as a category of history.’
  • [I enjoyed] ‘The focus on women for a change!’
  • [I learned] ‘Women had a greater role in history than I thought/History of Sexuality is more broad than I thought/all is more interesting than anticipated.’
  • [I learned] ‘How women fought C(ontagious) D(iseases) A(cts).’
  • [I enjoyed] ‘Learning about the ways women were viewed with regard to sex.’
  • ‘The course has been better than just talking about men and women. It explores themes and concepts in engaging ways.’

Obviously, there is a lot more in the comments, including about masculinity and plenty about Edward Carpenter.

My interest, then, is whether history can do work beyond the development of research skills and the contextualising of current debates. I want to explore in more detail what happens when we take a ‘flipped’ starting point, so that a ‘real-world problem’ and concern for social justice shape from the outset our research focus and the focus of our teaching. Can seeing historical change make the world less overwhelming for young people, even have a role in their resilience and sense of agency? Does seeing women and men endeavouring to live differently in the past speak to us in the present day? And can any of this help us to move beyond a neo-liberal view of education as valuable only in producing students as marketable commodities, to conceptualise anew the role of the university and the place of history and the humanities within it?[iii] 

Update: Since writing this blog post, a male colleague has argued against the inclusion of this module in a redesigned first year as, in his words, ‘we need to think about recruitment’ and ‘gender is less sexy’ than other available choices (empire, war, revolution). Whether men feel emboldened in the current climate to make such statements remains a pertinent question; and one that leaves me looking back rather wistfully to the progress we thought we were making circa 1992.

About the Author:

Alison Twells is a Professor of Social and Cultural History at Sheffield Hallam University. She teaches and researches in the fields of women’s and gender history, local/imperial/global history and public and community history. She is currently completing a book based on diaries and letters inherited from her great aunt which reveal an insalubrious story of deceit and predatory male sexuality during the Second World War.


[i] Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape (London: A Oneworld Book, 2016).

[ii] Students read an extract from R. W. Connell and James W. Messerschmidt, ‘Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept’, Gender & Society 18:6 (2005), 829-859; and Martin Francis, ‘The Domestication of the Male: Recent Research on Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century British Masculinity’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 45, No. 3 (2002), 637-652.

[iii] Raewyn Connell, The Good University: what universities actually do and why it’s time for radical change (London: Zed Books, 2019).

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