Image-ining Gender: Old Man Winter: Ageing Masculinity in Early Modern European Culture, by Amie Bolissian


By the seventeenth century, depicting Winter as an old man was nothing new. This painting, taken from a set of The Four Seasons by renowned Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690), was part of an allegorical tradition stretching back to antiquity. The theme was old but the setting and detail were contemporary. In its need to convey symbolic meaning to early modern European audiences, the image can provide insights into cultural assumptions about masculinity and ageing from this period.

Teniers painted several versions of The Four Seasons. He used figures of men, and usually repeated the same allegorical motif for each version: Spring holds a tree to be planted, Summer gathers a wheatsheaf, Autumn raises a glass of wine or spirits, and Winter wears heavy clothing, and warms himself with a brazier. A clear visual clue that the figure of Winter is old is his ‘hoary’ (white) hair and beard. This age signifier was referenced in drama, artwork, and texts. The King James translation of Proverbs 20:29 stated: ‘The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the grey head’.

Using an old person to depict cold, wet Northern hemisphere winters worked on more than one level in this period. Not only was Winter perceived as the final senescent, barren stage of the year, but also old men’s bodies were believed to be constitutionally cold and wet. 

According to the dominant Humouralist concepts of the body, the process of ageing gradually used up our life-giving store of good moisture and heat. Eventually, ‘olde folk’ would be left cold, dry in their ‘solid parts’, and clogged up with cold, wet humours such as phlegm. The old man in our painting makes his way through a cold, snowy landscape beside a frozen lake or river, carrying a brazier for warmth. Winter is dressed in thick clothes, with a fur-lined hat. Instantly we can see old age visually related to both coldness and wetness. In medical understandings of the body, however, these associations had significant repercussions for masculinity.

Coldness and wetness were linked to weakness, softness, ill-health… and womanhood. Women’s bodies were believed to be cooler and wetter than men, compounding pervasive assumptions about women’s feebleness and inferiority. Conversely, healthy men in their prime (25-45/50 years) were supposed to be the perfect balance of heat and moisture, often labelled as ‘hot and dry’. Masculinity was consequently linked to heat, fire, and strength, whereas femininity was associated with coolness, water and weakness – especially in art. This meant that, in what Gail Kern Paster refers to as early modern humouralism’s ‘caloric economy’, as men entered old age and began cooling and abounding in cold, wet humours, they essentially started to embody undervalued ‘female’ constitutional properties.[1] 

In our image of Winter, the old man is also hunched, diminished in size, and his walking stick suggests lameness – both indicating a loss of manly strength. On his belt he carries a full purse which was probably a reference to widespread beliefs that older people, like women, were prone to ‘covetousness’ and ‘avarice’. The English author Thomas Wright wrote that ‘olde men, and women are consecrated to covetousnes’ because they lacked the ‘force’ of young men to gather more money and goods.[2] The expression on Winter’s face appears apprehensive, with his slightly opened, downturned mouth, and frowning raised eyebrows. Fear was associated with coldness, old age, and women. Emotions were deeply embodied in this period, and doctors believed that a person’s warm blood and lively spirits rushed to their heart when scared or fearful, abandoning the face and limbs and leaving them pale, cold, and trembling. The Dutch physician Levinus Lemnius explained that coldness made men ‘fearefull, timorous and fainthearted… which is a thing peculiar to womenkinde’.[3] 

Another unique feature of the figure of Winter is that he is looking backwards, unlike the other three seasons who stare straight out at the viewer into the present. A tendency to look backwards and dwell in the past was thought to partly explain a further non-masculine trait in old men, that of excessive talkativeness, and wanting to share ‘What they have bin, what they have done, what they have had’.[4] Talkativeness was firmly associated with women during this period, and was tainted with connotations of idleness and ‘folly’. Theologian Richard Baxter declared: ‘Women, and Children, and old folks, are commonly the greatest talkers’.[5]  The term ‘gossip’ originated from the group of ‘gossips’ or godparents who attended a baptism, and were mostly women. 

Yet, it was not all bad news for our figure of Winter and ageing masculinity. In comparison to the other seasons, Winter seems to be affluently dressed, with a fur trimmed coat and hat, and a gold chain. Older men, who had retained their status and their memories, and were ‘sober’ and ‘temperate’, were thought to have access to positive ageing masculine attributes. Authors listed wisdom, good council, and steadfastness as admired qualities which were easier to attain in old age, after the lusts and ‘heat’ of youth had subsided.[6] Richard Steele declared that ‘Youth have usually the large Sails, but Old-age hath the solid Ballast, and therefore doth sail more steadily and more safely’.[7] The ageing ‘male’ stereotype could therefore encompass authority and wisdom, as well as weakness, fear, and miserliness.

While Teniers’ allegorical image of Winter cannot testify as a historical source for a specific individual, event, or lived experience, it does seem to capture expressively the ambivalent cultural attitudes towards older men in Europe during this period. It helps illustrate how the ‘natural’ cooling and weakening of old age could both erode certain early modern masculine traits and give easier access to others during the winter of a man’s life.


Further reading: Shepard, Alexandra, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2003); Toulalan, Sarah, ‘‘Elderly years cause a Total dispaire of Conception’: Old Age, Sex and Infertility in Early Modern England’, Social History of Medicine, 29/2 (2016), 333-59.; Reinke‐Williams, Tim, ‘Manhood and Masculinity in Early Modern England’, History Compass, 12/9 (2014), 685-93.


[1] Paster, Gail Kern, ‘Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Women’s Imperfection and the Humoral Economy’, English Literary Renaissance, 28/3 (1998), 420.

[2] Wright, Thomas, The passions of the minde in generall (London, 1604), 38.

[3] Lemnius, Levinus, The Touchstone of Complexions, (London: 1576), 16v.

[4] Steele, Richard, A Discourse Concerning Old-Age, (London: 1688), 47.

[5] Baxter, Richard, A Christian Directory, (London: 1673), 434.

[6] See: Cicero, Marcus Tullius, The worthye booke of old age (London, 1569), 11r.

[7] Steele, Richard, A Discourse Concerning Old-Age, (London: 1688), 108.


Amie is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @AuntieAmie

Image-ining Gender: ‘She hits massa with de hoe:’ The Weaponization of Plantation Labour Equipment by Enslaved Women in the Antebellum American South, by Erin Shearer

Three women and one man hoeing in field, (1899), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division []



This photograph, titled Three women and one man hoeing in a field, depicts the agricultural labour of unidentified African Americans in the late nineteenth century. The image not only offers a glimpse into the lives of Black Southerners before the turn of the century, but also provides an insight into the labour performed by enslaved people during the antebellum era (1815-1861) and the height of ‘King Cotton.’ 


The hoe served as a crucial tool of agricultural development on Southern slaveholding sites during the antebellum era.  Enslaved men and women often hoed crops alongside each other in back breaking conditions from ‘sun-up to sun-down’, cultivating the land of the elite and thus lining the pockets of their enslavers.[1] Consequently, for many African Americans, the hoe not only served as a tool of oppression but also stood as a symbol of their enslavement. 


Paradoxically, enslaved women often utilised tools of slavery such as the hoe as an object of resistance. Enslaved women created various violent strategies to resist victimisation, affirm agency and identity, and to protest against the legalised rape and abuse of their bodies in creative and subversive violent ways. The utilisation of plantation labour equipment ironically provided strategies for survival and allowed women to protest and resist white mechanisms of control. 


Works Progress Administration (WPA) interviews with formerly enslaved people conducted in the 1930s reveal a clear and distinct theme of enslaved women’s violence and illuminate how agricultural implements, such as the hoe, were utilised as an object of women’s resistance. When interviewed in the state of Texas, one formerly enslaved man described how an enslaved woman, Clarinda, violently resisted her slaveholder’s sexual advances, or attempts to ‘[inter]‘fere with her,’  by physically assaulting him with the hoe she was operating in the plantation field: 


‘De worst whippin’ I seed was give to Clarinda. She hits massa with de hoe ‘cause he try ‘fere with her and she try stop him.’[2]


Additionally, a respondent named Richard Crump described how his mother would stand inside her cabin equipped with a hoe and would challenge the residing overseer to enter and beat her. Afraid of trespassing into the armed enslaved woman’s cabin, the overseer let her be.[3] Lucindy Allison reported to a WPA interviewer how her mother, while labouring in the field, violently threatened to ‘chop up’ the plantation overseer ‘into pieces’ with her hoe if he attempted to whip her pregnant daughter. Unwilling to take the risk of potentially combatting two armed women, the overseer relented.[4] These examples demonstrate that women converted agricultural equipment into deadly weapons which could be utilised against slaveholders and overseers at any time to subvert authority. Bondswomen used plantation equipment as their own form of personal protection which extended to their children as women attempted to curb the generational cycle of abuse which operated on slaveholding sites. 


Slaveholders expected women who laboured as field hands to perform the same heavy work as men and little distinction was made between the two sexes, as highlighted by Anne Clark, who informed her interviewer that she ‘ploughed, hoed, split rails. I done the hardest work ever a man did, I was strong.’[5] The enforced labour implemented upon enslaved women inadvertently gave them the skills and experience needed to be able to transition the hoe from an innocent farm implement into a deadly weapon within seconds. 


The weaponization of the agricultural hoe specifically had many practical advantages. The hoe easily transitioned from an everyday farming tool to offensive weapon due to its light weight, long reach and sharp metal blade. Swinging the lightweight hoe required minimal strength and the metal blade edge could easily damage skin or crack bones of the intended target. Additionally, its long reach allowed the user to attack the intended victim and kept them from any immediate short-range counterattacks. Overall, converting equipment into weapons bolstered bondswomen’s violence, provided extra protection for themselves and others, and allowed them to overcome any possible physiological shortcomings due to the practical advantages of the weapon.  Therefore, it is not surprising that enslaved people, most notably women, converted this tool of enslavement into an object of resistance.


The descriptions of these women speak to a celebration and appreciation of the efficacy of women’s violence. They demonstrate how enslaved women rejected contemporary narratives of both white supremacy and inevitable masculine dominance through a resistance tactic still largely unexplored by historians of slavery. The weaponization of equipment by enslaved women forces historians to expand our understandings of those behaviours and actions we constitute as gendered. The testimony provided by the formerly enslaved clearly reveals that violence was not solely a male phenomenon, and it challenges contemporary and historical ideas around resistance, activism and identities forged in slavery. It asks us to reconceptualise the gendered boundaries we have drawn around strategies for survival. 

[1] Henry D. Jenkins, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 3

[2] Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 2

[3] Richard Crump, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1

[4] Lucindy Allison, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 2, Arkansas, Part 1

[5] Anne Clark, Federal Writers’ Project, Vol. 16, Texas, Part 1


Erin Shearer is a PhD researcher at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @erinshearer05

Image-ining Gender – ‘the backbone of Mau Mau’: Women’s Contributions in Conflict, Kenya by Beth Rebisz

(Photograph taken by author)

On 12th September 2015, a memorial in honour of Kenya’s freedom fighters was unveiled in Uhuru Park, Nairobi. The memorial was part of an out-of-court settlement reached between the British government and a group of Kenyans who had fought through the 1950s in an armed conflict against their colonial rulers. This group is now popularly referred to as the Mau Mau. The statue, at the heart of the memorial site, depicts a man and a woman. The woman is passing the man a basket filled with what we can assume to be food from the accounts gathered of those who fought in this war. Both figures are looking away from one another. This was a method used by men and women to avoid recognising each other should they be captured and expected to identify other insurgents. In contrast to previous memorials for the conflict, and unlike many war-focused statues, this structure equally represents men and women who fought in the struggle. The statue signifies a vital feature of this conflict – ‘the backbone of the Mau Mau’, ie. Kenyan women’s contributions to the cause.[i]

The unprecedented High Court hearing in London (2011-2013) signified a huge turning point in this shared history, with Britain finally acknowledging the horrors of this period in Kenya. This group of Kenyans had sued the British government for compensation for the torture and ill-treatment they suffered between 1952-1960 in the detention camps, work camps and fortified villages that made up the colonial government’s punitive counter-insurgency infrastructure. Along with the £19.9 million of compensation paid and the forced release of the colonial records which corroborated the testimonies of the claimants, the British government commissioned a memorial to commemorate the Kenyans who had been tortured or killed during the Mau Mau insurgency.

While it has been all too common in military scholarship to centre men as agents in war, recent research has worked to re-evaluate the key roles women have played in liberation struggles. Kenya is a particularly unique case study for this. As this statue would suggest, Britain recognised women’s contributions in the conflict. They recognised very early on that Kenyan women were quite literally keeping the movement alive. This can be determined by Britain’s response to Kenyan women. Not only did they establish two detention camps – Kamiti and Gitamayu – to specifically house suspected Mau Mau women, they extended the forced resettlement of the remaining population assumed to be supporting the forest fighters. Using this villagisation process to separate the ‘fish from the water’, the British hoped to drain insurgent fighters of key resources.

The statue depicts a Kenyan woman in her role in feeding the male forest fighters. Women were perceived to be the guardians of their local communities: nurturers and mothers. In the testimonies of women who were forcibly resettled, stories are shared of the ways in which they subverted the barriers put in place to separate them from the forest fighters. Women cut the wires of the surrounding village fence to sneak out at night to leave supplies at a designated spot. Women found ways to hide food outside of the village when they were taken out during the day to complete forced labour tasks for the colonial government. For many women in the villages, they continued to risk the extreme punishments to feed their male family members on the other side of the fence.

Women did not, however, provide just a supporting role in this conflict. While the statue does not depict women in this way, women were leaders in this fight too. One example of this is Field Marshal Muthoni. Muthoni wa Kirima was a top-ranking female fighter in the insurgency. She was the only woman to gain the rank of field marshal and fought in the forest for the entire duration of the Emergency Period. Muthoni was never captured, was never detained, and emerged from the forest in 1963 when Kenya attained independence from their colonial oppressors. During her time in the forest, she worked as a spy on the lookout for opposition activity. In her reflections on the contributions women made in this conflict, she said, ‘and let me tell you, women are something of substance indeed! Women! They should be honoured!’[ii]

As we have seen through the events of the last few weeks, statues and memorials are never apolitical. As the debate continues regarding the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, a ruling to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford, and for so many more, statues rarely tell us the full story. In ways, the memorial constructed in Uhuru Park has been successful in acknowledging the all-encompassing horrors of the 1950s conflict. There are several large labels of comprehensive text that reflect this in both of Kenya’s national languages, Swahili and English. It does, however, fail to address the generational aspects of the Mau Mau and how the British responded to this. Only recently is scholarship turning to explore the roles children played in the armed struggle, and the measures with which Britain attempted to ‘rehabilitate’ these children. The statue of Robert Baden-Powell in Dorset, founder of the scout movement, has been targeted by campaigners for his ruthless military actions in Africa during the colonial period. While the scout movement is celebrated by many, it was an aspect of the British colonial government’s counter-insurgency in Kenya to reinvigorate British ‘masculinity, militarism, imperial purpose, and racial superiority’.[iii] In comparison to the Boys Scouts re-establishing respect and discipline among young boys, young girls received training in domestic science which readied them for a Christian marriage and as custodians of the community.

[i] Katherine Bruce-Lockhart, ‘Reconsidering Women’s Roles in the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya, 1952-60’, in: Martin Thomas and Gareth Curless (eds). Decolonization and Conflict: Colonial Comparisons and Legacies (London, 2017), 160.

[ii] Interview Bethany Rebisz with Muthoni wa Kirima, Museum of British Colonialism <> Accessed 22nd June 2020.

[iii] Paul Ocobock, An Uncertain Age: The Politics of Manhood in Kenya (Ohio, 2017), 37.


Beth Rebisz is a doctoral research at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @BRebisz

Image-ining Gender: Finding ‘sanctuary’ with the US Army, by Liz Barnes

Edwin Forbes, ‘The sanctuary,’ ca. 1876, Morgan collection of Civil War drawings, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,  Washington DC. 


During the American Civil War (1861-1865), hundreds of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children fled farms and plantations across the South to secure their freedom. Frequently, this flight was towards the camps of soldiers fighting for the US Army, the force who had been rallied to quash the rebellion of the slave south. The relationship between these enslaved refugees and the forces they camped alongside remains shrouded in romance and myth, tied to notions of a ‘liberating’ army and an enslaved population who greeted them with gratitude and joy. 

In ‘the sanctuary,’ Edwin Forbes depicted the end of one perilous journey from slavery to freedom. Working as a staff artist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper during the conflict, Forbes spent the war years travelling around camps and pickets sketching scenes of daily life, skirmishes, and battles. In this illustration, completed in 1876, Forbes reflected on the experiences of the non-combatants who he had been in contact with a decade before.

Unlike many of Forbes’ other illustrations, this scene was clearly imagined. Reflecting back on the war and its outcomes – which included the abolition of slavery – Forbes conjured an idealistic vista of the moment an enslaved family reached Army lines. Centred in Forbes’ image and imagination was the enslaved woman, mother of a young child, whose experience sighting freedom is akin to a religious awakening. Constructions of gender, informed by Forbes’ anti-slavery politics and loyalty to the cause of the Army he followed, were central to his reflections upon emancipation.

In this simple image, emotion is key. The elderly man, coming to the end of a long life characterised by the hardships of enslavement, is not the most overjoyed to see his suffering end. The young child, whose life course has just been radically altered by the actions of his elders, remains fairly unmoved upon his arrival at the gates of freedom. But the enslaved woman in Forbes’ imagination is so overwhelmed by emotion that she has fallen to her knees, raising her hands to God in thanks, in praise, deeply moved by the change in her circumstances that sighting the stars and stripes signifies. Drawing upon abolitionist narratives about the realities of enslavement for women, Forbes invites the viewer to speculate about the life this woman has escaped. Had she witnessed the sale of her children? Faced sexual abuse at the hands of her enslaver? Been coerced into a ‘marriage’ not of her choosing? Of course she would be floored by triumph, relief, and gratitude.

Strikingly absent from this illustration is the figure of a young black man, upright and strong, entering army lines ready to fight for his freedom. While Forbes was generally respectful in his depictions of black people, avoiding the racist stylistic tendencies practised by many of his peers, the limits of his progressive thinking are exposed through his failure to draw black combatants. Either through a racist paternalistic attitude towards black Americans or through a calculated attempt to endear formerly enslaved people to his white audience, Forbes rarely depicted black men in US Army uniform, armed and ready to fight the men who would see him re-enslaved. [1] Almost 200,000 black men enlisted and fought for the US Army during the Civil War; they were a very present reality of the conflict, not an obscure token force. Forbes’ choice not to depict them was deliberate and played into white anxieties about the race relations after emancipation. 

Forbes’ group of imagined African Americans are at their least threatening. They are dependents of the Army, rather than members of it. Dependency is traditionally associated with the feminine, and the group that Forbes depicted here is feminised: poorly provisioned, in need of government aid, absent a male provider and protector. For Forbes, the US Army and nation fills this void, offering shelter, safety, and ‘sanctuary’ to the incomplete family. Even at a distance, the flag seems to fulfil this promise. While war is present in the form of felled trees and scarred earth, it is also strikingly absent: there are no combatants clearly depicted here, no weapons are in sight, and the figures do not seem to be in any immediate danger. The flag points the way to safety, peace, and freedom. While the woman lifts her arms to embrace the flag it flies overhead, welcoming these new citizens into the nation under the umbrella of its protection.

The idea of the war that this image represents is a powerful one, but it is nevertheless a fiction. While their victory secured the end of slavery, the US Army was not a bastion of anti-racist or even anti-slavery thought. Enlisted men and officers both neglected the needs of black refugees and in some cases callously disregarded them. Enslaved people frequently did not find ‘sanctuary’ behind Union lines, but rather squalor, disease, and violence. Some were separated from loved ones. Many were returned to their enslavers. Women faced dire conditions, starving and suffering while also facing that horrors that countless women embroiled in conflicts have faced across history: sexual violence and exploitation. Although at her moment of deliverance she may have been overjoyed, had Forbes’ returned to his imagined woman weeks, or even days, later, he may have envisioned a radically different experience.


[1] The young black men that Forbes did depict were generally labourers rather than fighters. See, for example, ‘a mule driver’ (1863); ‘Dick, the cook’ (1863)


Liz Barnes recently completed her PhD at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @E_M_Barnes.

Image-ining Gender: ‘a good breedin’ ‘oman sho did fetch de money,’ by Aisha Djelid

On the 10th January 1859 a court in Charleston, South Carolina, advertised the sale of Betty, a twenty-five-year-old enslaved woman. Betty was a ‘breeding woman,’ meaning that slaveholders valued Betty for being young, strong, healthy and, crucially, fertile. Advertised as a family unit with her two-year-old son, Plymouth, Betty had already proven herself to be a financial asset for any future buyer. As a woman, Betty provided sexual labour which resulted in the birth of children that slaveholders exploited for profit.  

After the ban on the international slave trade in 1808, slaveholders relied on enslaved women to reproduce to contribute to the expansion and survival of slavery. Enslavers desired women that were strong, healthy, or particularly ‘good looking’ to procreate with enslaved men that were equally as strong and healthy. This was not always consensual. Slaveholders often coerced enslaved men and women into sexual intercourse – sometimes violently. Slaveholders then generated a profit from the fruits of this sexual labour by either forcing enslaved children to work or by selling them away from their loved ones. Enslavers and enslaved alike labelled these men and women, like Betty, ‘breeders.’

The inscription of ‘breeding’ next to Betty’s name in this powerful image tells us much about her life. First, having had Plymouth at around the age of twenty-three, it suggests that her enslaver may have forced her to marry relatively young (though most enslaved women married in their late teens). Whether she married someone of her choosing, or whether they even ‘married’ at all, is unclear. The absence of a male in this family unit suggests that the father of the child either lived on a separate plantation, was dead, had fled slavery, or their enslaver/the court had already sold him away. 

Secondly, this advertisement is for a court-mandated sale of enslaved people. Auctions such as this usually took place because the owners had died without their affairs in order, because they had fallen into debt, or they were liquidating their assets. The mention of ‘Under Decree in Equity’ and ‘Master in Equity’ suggests that this sale was a result of foreclosure. This court-ordered sale does tell us, however, that Betty was not sold because she was a ‘bad breeder.’ In fact, the inscription of ‘breeding’ suggests that this was Betty’s key selling point. She is the only enslaved woman in this list who is emphasised for her fertility. Furthermore, by actively writing the word ‘breeding’ next to her name, the prospective buyer tells us that a woman’s fecundity was incredibly important to them. Alternatively, this list may not have been held by a prospective buyer, but by the seller (the court). The inscriptions next to the names of the enslaved people are the key advantages – or in some cases disadvantages – of individuals: perhaps these were used by the seller so they knew what to stress to attendees. Either way, an enslaved woman’s ability to produce children was valuable to both seller and buyer.   

What we do not know from this image is how many other children Betty gave birth to. It is not clear whether Plymouth was her only child, or whether she had more children that the slaveholders had already sold away. We also do not know the relationship she had with the father of the child. However, it is clear that for potential buyers of enslaved people, Betty, and other women like her, were valued as ‘two-legged wombs’(1) – enslaved women whose primary role was to bear children for the profit of white slaveholding men and women. 


  1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (McElland and Stewart, 1985), 176. Atwood describes the handmaids, who act as forced surrogate mothers, as “two-legged wombs”. 


Aisha Djelid is a doctoral researcher at Reading. You can find her on twitter @aishadjelid

Image-ining Gender: Highbury Hill High School: Girls’ school identity and educational change by Amy Gower

School Bulletins of Highbury Hill High School, 1977 and 1978 – personal collection. Copyright: Seona Myerscough


School newsletters or bulletins were a common feature of grammar schools, especially in the late-twentieth century. Used to share news with parents, alumni and pupils, communicate important changes, and celebrate the achievements of pupils, the newsletters also communicated a sense of institutional identity. These two covers show scenes from the life of Highbury Hill High School in Islington: girls on their commute, and the taking of school photo, likely to have resulted in panoramic snapshot to be rolled up and taken home. By delving into the history of the school, it is clear that these images served a particular purpose during a moment of potential crisis in the history of the school, by attempting to unite the wider school community and preserve a sense of institutional identity.

Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, local education authorities nationwide began a process of ‘comprehensivisation’, as the tripartite system of technical, grammar, and secondary modern schools was replaced with mostly co-educational comprehensive schools. Critics of the tripartite system saw the selection process for grammar schools as inherently unjust, sorting pupils at age 11 by supposed intellect, and replicating an unequal class system. Yet in some areas, such as Reading and parts of London, single-sex grammar schools persisted. Many girls’ grammar schools prior to comprehensivisation promoted a strong sense of school identity, sometimes rooted in the long historical legacies of such schools as spaces of academic and social achievement for girls.

Such schools were also seen by some pupils, parents, and teachers as spaces in which girls could flourish and be free from unwanted male attention and distraction. Research in the fields of sociology and education in the late-1970s and early-1980s had found that girls benefitted in many ways from the absence of boys in the classroom. Education researcher Sheila Riddell observed that in mixed settings, the dominance of loud male classmates in drawing teachers’ attention meant that girls were at times deprived of support and could easily abandon their work for quiet chats with friends. Harassment and victimisation of girls by boys was also a major concern for supporters of single-sex schooling. These understandings of the benefits of single-sex schooling meant that across the country, some single-sex schools survived the spread of co-educational comprehensivisation.

Highbury Hill High had become a comprehensive school in 1976 after decades as a grammar school, expanding its pupil base from those who had achieved higher results at age 11+ to an intake of varied academic success. This new intake drew in girls from across the bands of the London Reading Test. Some years later, it was revealed that administrators within the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) had an unfortunate habit of reclassifying some top performing girls into lower bands. This was to maintain a truly ‘comprehensive’ intake in co-educational schools but meant that many high-performing girls lost their first preference of secondary school. This tension for local authorities between balancing the egalitarian spirit of comprehensives with the problems girls faced in co-educational spaces proved a difficult issue for educationalists, feminists, and teachers throughout the late-twentieth century.

Highbury Hill was unusually left as a single-sex school, despite co-education generally accompanying comprehensivisation. In the 1977 School Bulletin, the headmistress, Mrs Butcher, commended the successes of the school in adapting to this new mixed-ability intake. Yet she also alluded to tensions, drawing parallels between the academic ability and behaviour of the new comprehensive intake, as she warned newcomers of the ‘self-defeating habit’ of truancy and the danger of future unemployment should such behaviour continue. Conceptualisations of intellect and class fundamentally shaped how teachers saw and interacted with their pupils; many former grammar schoolgirls from working-class backgrounds have reflected on the hostility and elitism they faced from teachers and peers. Such tensions between staff and new pupils had the potential to jeopardise the harmony of the school.

In contrast to the concerns of the Headmistress, the School Bulletin cover of 1977 shows happy, cheerful girls with handbags, bicycles, and a mix of hairstyles heading towards the school, a picture of youthful enthusiasm. Similarly in 1978, the cover shows the taking of a whole school photo, girls cheerfully sat cross-legged in the playground. Both depict moments of social cohesion and school pride. If considered alongside the recent changes to Highbury Hill High and the threat of comprehensivisation to school identity, the images can be seen as representative of the need to unify the student body and project an image of harmony to potentially concerned parents and pupils. The covers were drawn by a pupil from a cohort of exclusively grammar pupils. Whether the representation of unity was encouraged by teachers or not is uncertain, but the decision of the pupil to present a harmonious image of this new mixed student-body suggests the possibility that for pupils, these supposed tensions were less threatening than they were for some teachers.

The illustrations and accompanying newsletter provide a snapshot into the life of one London school, and suggest that while comprehensivisation was regarded as a mission in equalising educational opportunity for all pupils, in some areas it led to unforeseen complications – particularly for girls’ schools. The images on the covers of the School Bulletins represent the efforts of schoolteachers and pupils to unify an ever-changing student body and wider school community, and to preserve the identity of Highbury Hill High School in an era of transformative local and national change.


Amy Gower is a doctoral researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Reading. You can find her on Twitter @AmyG_Historrry.

Image-ining Gender: ‘They are ordinary working-class women living in ordinary working-class houses,’ by Melanie Khuddro

Betty Le Cras, ‘Petition to Stand’ 29/10/1919.  University of Reading Special Collections, Political Elections 1919-1935, Best Wishes Before Election MS1416/1/1/1730.


The 100-year anniversary of women in Parliament brought with it a host of celebrations, discussions, and reflections on the achievements and legacies of women in British history. Among the various events hosted at the University of Reading, an online exhibition was produced with 50 archival records digitised relating to the political career of the first women to take her seat in Parliament in 1919, Nancy Astor of Plymouth Sutton. The first document published on the Astor100 Twitter page exactly 99 years after her election success was a petition written by the women of her consistency.

The petition featured a series of names from the new female electorate in the Plymouth Sutton constituency demonstrating their support for Astor to run for election. With the anticipation that Nancy’s husband Waldorf would vacate his seat in the Commons to occupy his late father’s seat in the House of Lords, the voting public began to speculate his replacement. The enthusiasm for Astor to represent Plymouth Sutton extended beyond the female demographic. Remarkably popular in her constituency, Astor won the by-election by a large majority, securing 18.6% more of the vote than her closest competitor, and enjoying 26 uninterrupted years in Parliament before resigning in 1945.

The publication of the petition in the digital exhibition immediately captured the attention of the people of Plymouth, being shared across several social media platforms and featuring in local news outlets. Characterised as perhaps the first ever #AskHerToStand moment, the impact of circulating the petition was remarkable. The names were retweeted by the official Lady Astor Statue campaign alongside the caption ‘Let’s find their granddaughters…’, sparking a revival of interest in local women’s history and new wave of support to the crowdfunding campaign.

Its significance extended beyond the scope of women’s history and provided the foundation for a discussion on the local history of Plymouth. The addresses listed indicated the existence of areas of Plymouth that had been lost during the Plymouth Blitz in WWII. Not only were streets physically lost, but the series of bombing raids eradicated historical records of them – something that the circulation of the document has began to help fill the gaps of.

Reactions to the exhibition emphasised the importance and power of material culture in modern history. Everything from the handwriting of the participants, to the nail holding the business card of Astor’s counting agent, Betty Le Cras, aroused the attention of members of the public. Small idiosyncrasies were reminisced and speculated upon by potential descendants of the constituents.

The nostalgia from the people of Plymouth that emerged from the search brought about a sentimental value to the anniversary. Members of the public contacted researchers associated with the Astor100 project offering information about their relatives and street names in the communal effort to identify the signatories. The enthusiasm behind it underpinned huge part of the centenary that sought to address the effort and progress of all women in the political world; notwithstanding the contribution of ‘ordinary’ women. An initial response from a historical researcher based in Devon articulated this feeling: ‘These aren’t the wives of “the great and the good” of Plymouth. They are ordinary working-class women’. The interest that developed from this document captured the essence of the centenary; great achievements for women by women.


Melanie Khuddro is a doctoral researcher and sessional lecturer at the University of Reading, and a member of the Astor100 team.