Why education must once again drive feminism forward

Giving students agency to raise awareness of major issues like feminism must be at the heart of international school life, write this teacher and her pupil

Clare Anderson-Au and Julia Massa

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From the beginnings of the feminist movement, there have been strong links with the teaching profession.

As one of the few opportunities for paid work outside the home or in the “sweated industries”, teaching was a route for women to gain a certain amount of independence and purpose before they married.

Unsurprisingly, prominent suffragists and suffragettes from the UK and US, including Emily Davison, Edith Garrud, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Ida B Wells, Gertrude Foster Brown, Carrie Chapman Catt, Amelia Bloomer and Agnes Dawson – to name a few – were also teachers.

Anne Griffith-Jones, who founded our school, was an active figure in the British suffragette movement, becoming Swansea’s local secretary for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1913.

But it was not until she moved to Singapore in 1925 and founded Tanglin Trust School that she become a teacher.

A window of opportunity

Miss Griff, as she was fondly known, had come of age during the First World War and was one of many women who took on new jobs created as part of the war effort, or filled vacancies left by men who had gone off to fight. Miss Griff worked as a welfare officer in a munitions factory, which became the largest single employer of women in the UK during 1918.

The job market briefly opened to women during this time, broadening their horizons and promising a future of equal opportunities in a post-war world. Women’s employment rates increased during the war, from 23.6 per cent of the working-age population in 1914 to between 37.7 per cent and 46.7 per cent in 1918.

After the war, with returning servicemen reclaiming the available jobs and women actively discouraged from seeking employment in industries outside traditional “women’s work”, this window of equal opportunity was effectively shut.

When they had proven their competence in a range of sectors, it must have been a cruel blow.

The role of international schools in a post-war world

In a world where job opportunities had once again narrowed, teaching positions at the first international schools gave some women a new option: the chance to travel independently and work abroad.

Early founders like Miss Griff not only created new opportunities for themselves and the female teachers they hired but also an educational choice for families living away from their home country.

Rather than sending them on long journeys overseas to boarding school, international schools provided continuity of education in the host country through globally transferable curricula.

At first, these curricula were most commonly based on the internationally recognised education systems of the UK and the US. 

But from day one, international education had a unique perspective: a global outlook within the curriculum that incorporated the culture of the host country, assimilated influences from their international community and incorporated best-practice pedagogy from around the world.

A broader perspective within the educational offer is a perfect environment for inclusivity to flourish.

As one of our current Year 10 students, Julia Massa, sums up: “We grow up with people from different genders and cultures all around us, so the international community tends to be more open, inclusive and ready to challenge norms. International schools tend to focus on equality and respect – all very important values.”

A student-led initiative to move women’s rights forward

We have come a long way since 1925 but there is still a long way to go – as recent world events have shown.

Worldwide women’s rights protests have been highlighting the continuing impacts of gender inequality across cultures, while the testimonies of Everyone’s Invited, the murder of Sarah Everard in the UK and the recent attack at Howth Junction Train Station in Ireland have drawn attention to violence against young women.

With all of this going on, Julia saw a window of opportunity for students to learn more about the feminist issues behind the headlines and to steer a proactive narrative: what can be done to create a more equal and safer society?

“All the things in the news right now, such as women not feeling safe walking home at night, not being able to wear what they like, protests about the prevalence of sexual assault – it all helped me to understand our relative safety and privilege here in Singapore. We don’t always see the immediate and extensive impact of inequality but, once we step out of this bubble, it hits you pretty hard.”

Putting pen to paper

Our students are encouraged to lead initiatives that link to world events, their personal interests and our positive education ethos so, when Julia came across the Harvard Alumni’s Women’s Empowerment Essay Competition while researching an article on women’s rights for a student newspaper, she suggested it is as a vehicle to promote peer-group discussion.

“I thought it was the perfect opportunity to bring the Tanglin community and all the benefits of this great competition together. Even if we just have one student learning more about women’s empowerment and taking that knowledge out to the world, that’s great – there’s a ripple effect.”

So we partnered with Harvard to bring its key stage 5 competition to Tanglin and rolled out KS4 and KS3 versions within our school:

  • KS3: What does feminism mean to you? (judged by a student committee led by Julia)
  • KS4: How would you create a more equal society? (judged by teachers and the student committee)
  • Sixth form (KS5): What is the biggest challenge facing women and girls in your country today? (with sixth form entries going forward to be judged in Harvard’s Global Competition).

How to create student buy-in

The competition was launched in mini assemblies, explained in the student council meetings of each year group and advertised as an International Women’s Week challenge, through posters in class and school communications channels.

The competitive element appealed to our students, spurring peer-group discussion within and beyond the competition – not least about negative connotations that persist around the term feminism – which is just what Julia had hoped:

“The whole aim of the competition was to break these stereotypes. When challenging gender norms, you are releasing men from their stereotypes, too. Being a feminist is about standing up for women’s rights, not about being anti-men. Feminism can also help men to break free from uber-masculine expectations.”

The competition was an opportunity for students to build on their essay-writing skills and gain a school-wide or global platform (KS5) for their work. We have been impressed by how thoughtful they have been about the subject matter.

“We are reading the entries together, as a committee, but I have glanced at a few already,” reports Julia.

“They are heartwarming and encourage me to continue to do what I’m doing. It’s reassuring to see people standing up for this in our community. It makes me feel very proud to spread the message that there is much more to be done and we can all do it together.”

Clare Anderson-Au, key stage 3 head of pastoral, and Julia Massa, Year 10 student, Tanglin Trust School

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Clare Anderson-Au and Julia Massa

Clare Anderson-Au, KS3 Head of Pastoral and Julia Massa, Year 10 Student, Tanglin Trust School

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