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. 

Congratulations to Dr Jacqui Turner and the Astor 100 Team!

The Gender History Cluster would like to extend our warmest congratulations to our own Jacqui Turner and the rest of the Astor 100 team – including cluster member Melanie Khuddro, and our wonderful students Rachel Newton, Abbie Tibbott, Molly Edwards and Bronwyn Jacobs – on winning a 2020 University of Reading Research Engagement and Impact Award. The Astor 100 project celebrated the centenary of the first woman MP to take her seat in Parliament, Nancy Astor. We enjoyed a year of memorable events, culminating in the unveiling of a statue of Nancy Astor in Plymouth last November. Jacqui used the centenary to highlight the importance of women in politics, demonstrating the value that historical research can have in ongoing activist efforts.

The main site for the Astor 100 project can be found here. You can find a range of short pieces about Astor and the project here. Visit the online exhibition, ‘An Unconventional MP’ on Twitter.

LGBT+History Month

Februrary is LGBT+History Month. The events below are confirmed at this point, but do check for updates and details at our D&I Events page here.


Jessica Lynn’s Transgender Journey, Wednesday 6 February, 17:00, Room 108 Henley Business School, Whiteknights Campus

In recent years, Kinsey Institute Global Ambassador, Jessica Lynn, has become well-known for her activism on behalf of the transgender community. Her experience, exuberance, and extraordinary life produce a presentation that has put her on over 700 stages in 22 different countries. After a prejudiced Texas judge stripped her of all parental rights to her youngest son, Ms. Lynn dedicated her life to combating the intolerance and ignorance of the public toward peoples who share her plight. Addressing audiences unabashedly and answering any-and-all questions has earned Ms. Lynn worldwide renown, the prestige of a Stonewall School Role Model, and a position advising the medical community by request of the National Health Service England.

All (staff, students, local community, etc!) welcome. Click here for more details and to book.


Offences against the person? Discovering hidden LGB histories in Berkshire court archives, Monday 11 February, 16:30-18:00, Berkshire Record Office, 9 Coley Avenue, Reading RG1 6AF

As part of LGBT History Month, join us to hear University of Reading students Amy Hitchings and George Stokes discuss the findings of their summer 2018 UROP research. Learn about some previously forgotten lives, see some of the documents Victorians and Edwardians used for research and enjoy tea and cake. Exhibition and refreshments from 16:30pm, discussion from 17:00

All (staff, students, local community, etc!) welcome. Admission free, booking via email to


Becoming a UoR LGBT+ Ally: Information and Recruitment Session, Wednesday 13 February, 13:00-14:30, G01, Building L22, London Road Campus

This is a recruitment event for our new LGBT+ Allies Programme, hosted by the RUSU Diversity Officer and the Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, and led by LGBT+ staff, students and allies. The event will focus on:

  • Are LGBT+ allies needed for UoR staff and students?
  • What is an ally?
  • What do we want allies to do?
  • Q&A.

The session will be followed by a networking lunch.

All students and staff welcome. Booking (for lunch numbers) via email to Sinead O’Flynn for students, via the usual booking system on ESS for staff.


Trans Awareness Training (led by local teacher and former UoR student Rosemary Taylor), Thursday 14 February, 10:00-12:00, Room 128, Edith Morley, Whiteknights Campus

The Transgender Spectrum is complex. This session looks at the range and variety of people who identify in one way or another as Transgender. An important aspect of this is to realise that there are many misconceptions that come from media coverage of trans people. The variables of gender, sexuality and other aspects are explored and explained, including: What it is like to be Trans; Coming Out; Being Trans in Public; Being Trans at work; How do staff react to trans people? The session includes time for discussion, questions and answers.

All students and staff welcome. Booking via email to Sinead O’Flynn for students, via the usual booking system on ESS for staff.

Developing the African Woman

by Beth Rebisz, PhD student

For six weeks this summer I was based in Nairobi conducting research in the Kenyan National Archives. As this was my first fieldwork trip to Kenya I was excited to see what the archives held and was able to use this opportunity to scope out further sites for research, meeting individuals I will be able to conduct oral history interviews with. As part of my PhD thesis aims to explore the experiences of Kenyan women during the Mau Mau conflict in the 1950s, I was intrigued to learn more about the community development programmes enforced during this decade by the British colonial government to boost ‘self-help’ amongst African women during this period of intense warfare. Maendeleo ya Wanawake was an organisation established by the colonial government in 1952 with the proclaimed aim of encouraging the ‘advancement of African women’. So, what were these advances and what did the colonial government mean by ‘self-help’?

It is little surprise when placing this in the context of the 1950s that classes run by Maendeleo ya Wanawake, often with the support of the British Red Cross, centred on domestic duties and crafts. Kenyan women attended training on how to keep their homes clean, how to wash their babies effectively as well as cooking classes focused on preparing typical British recipes. In terms of their recreational sessions, sewing, crocheting, singing and dancing took centre stage. It is important to note that membership to Maendeleo ya Wanawake was not free, however with joining the organisation women could access resources for their homes, childcare to attend classes as well as further incentives such as competition prizes and promotions to become paid leaders of their village and district clubs.

Photo credit: ICRC archives (ARR)

Delving into the monthly reports of the organisation, there are clear signs of disengagement of Kenyan women towards certain classes. Colonial officials saw this as an indication of Africans not wanting to help themselves. As a historian critically analysing this evidence, it is important to explore other reasons behind this and to consider the context of the proclaimed ‘civilising mission’ behind European colonisation of Africa. The described purpose of Maendeleo ya Wanawake may have been to encourage the ‘advancement of African women’, but this advancement was focused on Western ideals of women with little consideration of African womanhood. This sat within a wider aim coined by historians D. A. Low and John Lonsdale as the second colonial occupation. This aimed to develop African populations in a manner that prepared them both for independence and to ensure citizens became more governable.[1] By viewing these signs of Kenyan women’s disengagement to the classes organised by British officials within this wider context, one could instead interpret this as an act of defiance.

Curiously, Maendeleo ya Wanawake was established in 1952, on the eve of the declaration of a state of emergency across Kenya. While the British were fighting a brutal counter-insurgency campaign against Mau Mau guerrilla fighters calling for land and freedom from colonial rule, the Ministry of Community Development and Rehabilitation were not only forming Maendeleo ya Wanawake, they were also ‘rehabilitating’ detainees suspected of being part of the Mau Mau movement. This begs the question whether this organisation really centred on the ‘advancement of African women’, or whether their aim was two-fold; engineer Kenyan women into the idolised Western mother within the patriarchal household and steer them clear of any Mau Mau involvement. What is notable is that to this day Maendeleo ya Wanawake is thriving, now seen as a vehicle for women’s rights and gender equality within leadership and economic sectors, in Kenya. Despite the alarming purpose behind its formation, Kenyan women have transformed the society to fully embody the definition of ‘Maendeleo’; the Kiswahili term for ‘progress’.

[1] D. A. Low and John Lonsdale, ‘Towards the New Order 1945-1963’, in: D. A. Low & Alison Smith (eds) History of East Africa Vol III (Oxford, 1976), 13.

#MeToo, Brett Kavanaugh, and Anti-Feminist Backlash in the United States

by Elizabeth Barnes, PhD student

Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s brave testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee astonished the world, but her allegations were greeted with hostility by men in positions of power – a response which has deep roots in the history of sexual violence and social reform in the US.

In October 2017, in just 24 hours, 4.7 million people engaged with #MeToo on Twitter, recounting personal stories of sexual harassment, misconduct, and abuse. The movement arose in the wake of accusations of sexual misconduct against Harvey Weinstein; the phrase was coined by Tarana Burke in 2006, and popularised in 2017 by actress Alyssa Milano. Within 24 hours of #MeToo appearing, high-profile men, within the entertainment industry and beyond, began to lose their jobs and reputations. Women and men who had been silenced for years found themselves being listened to and believed.

It did not take long, however, for the anticipated backlash to begin. We have recently seen the culmination of that backlash unfold in the US Senate, but this is certainly not the first time that a cultural movement seeking increased protection for women against sexual violence has encouraged such a response from powerful men. Those who rushed to the defence of Brett Kavanaugh (accused of sexual abuse and misconduct by multiple women) appealed to deep-seated, historical anxieties about sexual crimes, women, and deceit.

The incredible successes of the age of consent movement in the US, for example, were soon challenged in the media and the courtroom in similar terms to the criticisms of #MeToo. This movement saw the age at which young women could consent to sexual relations increase to at least 16 in all states but one by 1920. The headlines from a 1919 edition of the Journal of Urology and Sexology, however, are all too similar to those we see plastered across current tabloids: ‘Giving Bit of Sugar to Young Girl Leads to Accusation of Innocent Man’; ‘Lying Child Found Out by Trick’; and, simply, ‘Characteristic Example of Female Revenge.’

These headlines and related stories were published together under the heading ‘Miscellaneous Cases of Rape.’ All of the collected stories involved girls and women making false allegations, deceiving authorities, and using accusations of rape to exert power over men. A recent Wall Street Journal piece (which essentially claimed that Dr Blasey Ford has falsified her allegations out of partisan interest) would not look out of place amongst these stories from a century ago, proclaiming her actions as ‘The #MeToo Kavanaugh Ambush’.

The implication that Dr Blasey Ford was fabricating her allegations against Brett Kavanaugh was voiced again during the senate hearing. Rachel Mitchell, questioning Blasey Ford on behalf of Republican senators, asked why she had taken a polygraph, on whose advice, and with whose funding. Mitchell also queried who had recommended Dr Blasey Ford’s counsel, and who was paying them. These lines of questioning play into the belief that women falsify allegations, either for their own gain or as pawns of others.

Similar thinking was also expressed during and after the campaigns for age of consent reform. The backlash hit not just girls, but all women, who had suddenly become much more capable of securing convictions against predatory men. One Supreme Court justice in 1892 remarked that rape allegations were ‘easily simulated,’ and that women’s testimony must be regarded with ‘suspicion.’[1]

Much like today, women as well as men sometimes endorsed these misogynistic narratives about sexual assault: girls ‘can get boys or men in trouble this way [and] then they laugh about it,’ remarked one mother in the 1930s, whose son had been jailed for statutory rape.[2] During the senate hearing, Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith defended Kavanaugh, stating that ‘opponents of Judge Kavanaugh are engaged in character assassination to destroy the reputation of a devoted public servant.’

It is never quite clear, however, what precisely individual women have to gain from falsifying allegations. What is very clear – but generally ignored – is exactly how much they stand to lose.

With all the progress that the #MeToo movement has made, attention remains on the behaviour of individual men, rather than the institutions that protect them. Ideas about sexuality and sexual violence that pervade US culture remain largely unchallenged and unchanged. In the immediate aftermath of the Weinstein allegations, men in power across the US were stating that ‘as a father’ or ‘as a husband’, they were horrified by the stories unfolding. Their concerns for women’s safety were still defined by their own (apparently paternalistic) relationship to women.

That narrative has now shifted, however. No longer are Republican men expressing the desire to defend and protect women from predatory men, but rather circling the wagons against accusations that may fall at their own door. ‘If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this,’ a White House Lawyer stated shortly after Dr Blasey Ford’s allegations were made public, ‘then you, me, every man certainly should be worried.’ Like their conservative predecessors, Kavanaugh’s defenders believe that sexual assault is a problem, but a rare one, frequently fabricated, and less important than the standing of reputable men.


[1] Hal Goldman, ‘”A Most Detestable Crime”: Character, Consent, and Corroboration in Vermont’s Rape Law, 1850-1920,’ in Merril D Smith (eds.), Sex Without Consent: Rape and Sexual Coercion in America (New York, 2001), 178-203, 193

[2] Estelle B. Freedman, Redefining Rape (Cambridge, MA, 2013), 165.

UROP – Undergraduate Summer Research 2018

We are running three Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme placements this summer: ‘Offences against the person? Tracing hidden LGB histories through Berkshire court records and archives‘, ‘An Unconventional MP’: The political career of Nancy Astor in 50 documents‘ and ‘Hidden Voices: A digital exhibition of enslaved women in the lowcountry USA‘. See also Rachel Newton’s amazing blog on her Astor research: