The issue - Empowering young women: you can do it!

Teachers can give female students the confidence to speak up – and encourage male pupils to listen with respect
31st October 2014, 12:00am


The issue - Empowering young women: you can do it!

What does it take for the media to talk about feminism? Emma Watson, apparently. The Harry Potter star and goodwill ambassador for UN Women challenged us in her recent speech to reconsider what it means to be a feminist. It was fantastic to see so many column inches devoted to discussion of feminism.

But inevitably the spotlight faded away and we were left with the reality: feminism is marginalised and rarely spoken about. I spent most of my life afraid of this label, ignoring a key part of my identity. Now, as a teacher, I don't want my students to have that same feeling. I'd like to make feminism acceptable all the time, not just when a celebrity decides to talk about it.

This isn't about indoctrination. It's about giving the female members of my class the words, the outlet and the space to feel comfortable in their own skin - and ensuring that male students respect that. It is my responsibility to make feminism part of the school experience.

Unfortunately, this is not easy. Take a 21st-century English classroom in the US: it looks almost the same as it did 50 years ago. We read all the same texts - Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Dante, Kafka and the like. When we read, discuss and praise only dead white men, it is easy to ignore issues of gender. Girls continue to live this reality outside school: from literature to cinema, half our student population are poorly represented. I remember reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin in high school; my world opened up. For the first time, a text was both a window into another world and a mirror of my own.

So how can we teach female students that their voices matter even if they are made to feel that they do not? And how can we show male students that they share responsibility for empowering women?

Every voice is valid

The first step is to recognise that all viewpoints are valid. In my classroom, I encourage lots of questions, multiple perspectives and debate. Rather than give my students a lecture on my interpretation of a text, I say nothing and instead pose questions for them to explore in writing or discuss in small groups before we come together as a class. Often, the students surprise me with their creative and insightful ideas.

At first, students lack confidence in their own analysis and yearn for my voice. But eventually, with encouragement, they learn the value of what they have to say. They feel liberated from the notion that there is one true answer and feel less unsettled by ambiguity and complexity. This promotion of multiple viewpoints can work across the curriculum and outside school. Once students know there is no right answer, both girls and boys begin to see female viewpoints as valid.

Provide inspiration

We need to show female students that their gender does have a voice. Moreover, we need to show male students that feminism is not some new fad dreamed up on social media but a historic movement; and that although history and literature may appear one-sided, they are not.

Hence, when we study the US Declaration of Independence we can also analyse a document it influenced, called the Declaration of Sentiments. It was presented at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, which was the first conference for women's rights in the US and was highly influential in the campaign for women's suffrage.

We also discuss the complex Native American female characters in the novel Reservation Blues, and read the work of female poets alongside that of their male counterparts. History is only one-sided if you let it be. Search out examples of the female voice in every subject and let students explore them.

Keep it mainstream

It is important that feminism is part of the main dish, not a side order. If you discuss feminism as a separate strand of teaching, as a tutor group topic or as an add-on ("Hey, these female scientists did some great work too, but now back to the lesson"), all you do is promote its "otherness". This is the opposite of what we should be trying to achieve. Female voices and issues have to be studied as part of the mainstream, thus demonstrating that they are not a sideline concern.

Enable action

We also need to ensure that feminist views are explored outside the classroom. This can be done in many ways, such as challenging sexist behaviour and language when it occurs, and ensuring inclusion and equal importance in school clubs.

We launched an effective initiative last year: a club called In Her Shoes where gender issues are discussed. The students - girls and boys - meet regularly after school to explore a range of topics, from pop lyrics and advertisements to school policies. Inspired by Miss Representation, a documentary about the portrayal of women in the media, the club explores how gender expectations and stereotypes affect identity.

This year, the students have created a club blog. They will oversee the content, posting weekly essays about topics discussed at meetings. One of the benefits of this blog is that it gives introverted students a chance to speak up. The traditional classroom runs on extroverted students who are willing to raise their hands and speak, whereas the blogosphere caters for those with different strengths.

My hope is that this club helps students to feel more comfortable discussing gender issues, especially female students who are too embarrassed to even identify as feminist.

We have shamed female empowerment to the point where feminism has become the other F-word. Let's shun the shame and open the door for students to discuss issues that they live and breathe on a daily basis, with the support of teachers, parents, peers and the rest of the school environment.

Rebecca McGrath teaches at Westfield High School in New Jersey, US

What else?

Discuss key terms and issues in feminism using this introductory presentation.

Explore sexist attitudes in these lessons on equality.

Discover the inspiring stories of eight women who have changed the world.

Promote gender equality using this presentation about prejudice and discrimination.

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