Debating was an important part of schoolgirls’ political education in late Victorian and Edwardian England that has been overlooked in the scholarship on female education and civics instruction. Debates offered middle- and working-class schoolgirls an embodied and interactive education for citizenship. Considering both the content of discussions and the process of debating, this article argues that school debates provided a unique opportunity for girls to discuss political ideas and develop political skills. Debates became intertwined with girls’ peer cultures, challenging contemporary and historiographical assumptions of girlhood apoliticism. Positioning girls as political subjects sheds new light on political change in modern Britain. Schoolgirl debates show how gendered political boundaries were shifting in this period. Within the unique space of the school debating chamber, girls were free to appropriate and subvert ‘masculine’ political subjects and ways of speaking. In mock parliaments, schoolgirls re-created the archetypal male political space of the House of Commons, demonstrating their familiarity with parliamentary politics. Schoolgirl debates therefore foreshadowed initiatives that promoted women's citizenship after partial suffrage was achieved in 1918, and they help to explain how the first women voters were assimilated easily into existing party and constitutional politics.
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