Life histories or career trajectories? Oral history and gender

This blog post originally appeared on the Warwick Oral History Network blog.

As part of a pilot for one of my postdoctoral projects, I recently interviewed 15 male and female Oxfordshire teachers who started their teaching careers in the 1970s, exploring how their relationships with the pupils they taught changed as they themselves grew older. These were not traditional ‘life history’ interviews, but drew upon elements of the approach pioneered by Stephen Ball and Ivor Goodson’s work with teachers, aiming to situate these participants’ personal stories alongside their professional identities. [1] Strikingly, however, while my female interviewees seemed to instinctively perceive the close relationship between the public and the private, my male interviewees often resisted or neglected this narrative, preferring to focus entirely upon their career trajectories as teachers. This reflects a trend perceived by numerous oral historians, who argue that the ways we remember the past are gendered; for example, Penny Summerfield has explored how women forgot or minimised those elements of their war work that did not fit into public narratives of commemoration. [2]. More broadly, it has been suggested that women are socialised to remember relationally, to fit their own stories into networks that reflect the most important relationships in their lives, whereas men tend to tell stories where they are the only important actor. [3]

In this brief post, I will focus on the aspect of my participants’ stories that highlighted the most striking gender differences; the experience of parenthood. Without exception, all of my female interviewees who had had children of their own volunteered the observation that  becoming a mother had been a significant influence on their teaching careers, not solely because it usually entailed taking a break from teaching, but because it meant that they related to their pupils in a different way. As one participant wrote in her initial questionnaire in answer to the question What have been the biggest influences on your teaching throughout your career?’, ‘My own children! I learnt so much more about child development.’[4] One of my female interviewees was single and childless, but even she, without being prompted, commented that having the chance to get to know her friends’ children had made her a better teacher. In contrast, my male interviewees, all of whom were fathers, did not mention their children unless specifically asked about them. When asked whether becoming a father had been an influence upon their teaching careers, some simply said that it had not, while others admitted that it had, but that they had ‘never thought about that before.’ Unlike their female counterparts, they had not constructed parenthood as a crucial part of their career histories.

Male teachers tended to see being a teacher as a professional role that was separate from their private life, and told me stories about their career trajectory. In contrast, female teachers viewed their role as a teacher as inextricable from the wider roles as either mothers or carers of children, and so situated their careers in life histories. This was indicative of a wider gendered split that I observed in my doctoral research between men and women’s attitudes to teaching as a ‘profession’ or as a ‘vocation’, and suggests that gender not only affected these participants’ career paths at the time, but also the way they remembered their careers from the vantage point of retirement.

[1] Stephen J Ball and Ivor F. Goodson, Teachers’ Lives and Careers (East Sussex, 1985)

[2] Penny Summerfield, ‘Culture and composure: creating narratives of the gendered self in oral history interviews’, Cultural and Social History, 1, 1, 2004, 65-93

[3] Richard Eley and Alyssa McCabe, ‘Gender differences in memories for speech’ in Paul Thompson, Luisa Passerini and Selma Leyesdorff eds., Gender and Memory (Oxford: 1996)

[4] Oxfordshire Pilot Project, Questionnaire 0x.015.



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