Comment: Teaching feminism difficult considering today's rolemodels

14th August 2009 at 01:00
It's hard to get children to become feminists when the teachers aren't feminists themselves, but there is a way forward

Original paper headline: Girls' self-worth must go beyond Britney

One hundred years ago, the first suffragette hunger strike took place. Marion Wallace Dunlop, arrested in July 1909 and charged with wilful damage, fasted for 91 hours before being released from prison. Few people today will recognise her name - feminist history is not a popular subject, and within it Dunlop is not a particularly popular figure, overshadowed somewhat by the Pankhursts, Emily Davison and other better known women.

Though I would like people to have a better grasp of feminist history, if only to realise how recent and how precarious many women's rights are, I do not think that it is vital to know feminist history in order to be a feminist. That is, when talking about women's rights today, we should not necessarily expect people to know the difference between the Guerrilla Girls and the Spice Girls, or Naomi Wolf and Virginia Woolf.

But 100 years on from the first suffragette hunger strike, I think the time is ripe to demand that feminism becomes a mainstream part of what is taught in schools.

Feminism as part of the curriculum

There have been calls for it to be taught in schools before. For example, last year Dr Jessica Ringrose of London University's Institute of Education argued that the sexualisation of young girls who increasingly link their self-worth to sexual attractiveness and whose "role models" are Britney Spears and Paris Hilton means that girls automatically define their identities in an anti-feminist way.

She called for feminism to be taught in schools to reinvigorate girls' sense of self-worth and to help pupils think about the gender implications of their language and image.

Dr Ringrose was right. But how can teachers be expected to teach feminism when so few of them actually identify as feminists? In researching my book, The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism, I spoke to many women in their twenties and thirties about feminism, asking if they were feminists. I was struck by just how many began their sentences with the words "I'm not a feminist but ."

In fact, they then went on to express sentiments entirely compatible with feminism, calling for equal pay and a better division of domestic labour and caring roles, but they did not identify this as feminism. My book coins a new word for this kind of non-feminist - "feminisn'ts".

But if our schools are staffed by feminisn'ts, how can we expect them to teach children to become feminists? I think there is a relatively easy solution. We need to reclaim the term feminism so that it is not seen as a dirty word or something to be ashamed of. And perhaps we also need to place less emphasis on the word feminism and more on the concepts.

I would like feminisn'ts to become feminists, but it is enough for me that they embrace feminist ideas. And in this respect, schools do rather well. Gone are the days when bright women were told to become teachers and everyone else was sent to learn how to type.

Girls in our schools today are taught that they can do anything they want to do. In that sense, most of our schools do have a feminist ethos.

But I would like schools to go further, and do more teaching of feminism. Not just in feminism lessons - though I would like these to be compulsory for boys and girls, and to include subjects such as childcare, how to use banks and financial institutions, how to cook and how to clean the loo - but across the curriculum, because feminism classes, if just shunted into one lesson, will be easily ignored. Rather, every subject needs to be reviewed to be feminist friendly.

Children's perceptions

At the moment, with a few exceptions, if children are asked to picture a philosopher, they picture a man in white robes. If they are asked to picture a scientist, they picture a man in a white coat. If they are asked to picture an artist, they may well think of a man in a beret. And asked to picture a mathematician, they will likely think of a man scratching his head as he contemplates his graph paper, or something similar.

A feminist curriculum would counter this. History lessons would ensure the role of women in history is talked about. Science would include a focus on women scientists. Economics must include not only a look at the role of women in the economy but the implications of economic policies on women.

RE should look at where religion mistreats women and highlight and discuss this. English literature has to include books by women and with strong female characters. Art and music lessons should discuss why we have heard of so few female composers and artists throughout history. Women's achievements, such as Helen Sharman being the first Briton in space, have to be lauded, and in areas where there are few women's achievements the reasons for this need to be examined.

And of course I would like women such as Marion Wallace Dunlop to be celebrated along with today's inspirational women. When I was at school, my humanities teacher had a poster of Nelson Mandela on the wall. I remember seeing this when I started secondary school, six months before Mandela was freed, and asking my teacher about him.

It was a great supplement to my learning and I'd like all schools to have similar displays of people to whom we should be grateful for fighting inequality. With this, feminism classes to equip girls and boys to face the various demands of life inside and outside the home, and a feminist- friendly curriculum that recognises the role of women across the board, we'll be most of the way there to ensuring that today's children are not just feminists, but proud of it.

  • Ellie Levenson, Author of `The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism'. `The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism' by Ellie Levenson is published by Oneworld.

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