The 'F' that became a dirty word

24th April 2009 at 01:00
For today's teenagers feminism is an irrelevance, a study finds

Twenty-first century schoolgirls are continually trying to distance themselves from feminism, despite its ongoing relevance to their lives, a research project has concluded.

Carol Taylor, of Sheffield Hallam University, interviewed 67 sixth-formers about their attitudes towards the women's movement and found that many repeatedly denied any suggestion they might be feminists.

Several insisted that differences between men and women were down to personality and circumstance rather than institutionalised sexism. About housework, one said: "I think it's more of an individual thing than a gender thing."

Her classmate believed that male underachievement in exams could be similarly explained. "I think it's more of a stereotype than anything else," she said. "You can find some patterns, but I think everything in the end is down to individuals."

Despite this, the girls often fell into stereotypically gendered patterns of behaviour. For example, they accepted they would be hardworking high- achievers, eager to please the teacher, while boys were more likely to be laid-back or lazy.

Teenager Lorna said: "I don't think I know any boys who try really hard at coursework. They just bump along and then at the last minute they have to get it together really quickly . Women are more likely to worry than boys."

Ms Taylor pointed out that Lorna and her classmates were displaying a traditional form of femininity in which women were expected to carry the burden of worry.

Other pupils struggled to redefine feminism in relation to their own worlds. Many saw it as a tool in the armoury of critical theory, rather than something that affected their day-to-day lives.

Charlene, who is completing a course on film studies, spoke of the portrayal of women in the media: "Everything is so stereotypical . All the males obviously liked . the ones where (the women) weren't wearing much clothing."

Meanwhile, her classmate Lynne said: "I think it's totally derogatory the way women are portrayed in horror films. Men get excited seeing ladies getting killed because, like, they have their supposedly sex face on and stuff."

Unlike other pupils, Lynne was willing to describe herself as a feminist. Her A-level work had led her to conclude that "sticking up for women's rights" was important "because there is so much derogatory thinking towards women".

But she was unusual. More often, pupils condemned feminism as anti male. Teenager Julianna claimed that feminism was "only interested in one thing: male domination". Feminists, she added, were merely "women looking for someone to blame . I don't think feminism is a major issue now".

Julianna planned to leave school and join the family construction business. She was aware this was a male-dominated workplace, but attributed her drive to succeed to hard work rather than feminism.

Ms Taylor concludes that pupils like Julianna have created a position for themselves "in which feminism must be unspoken, denigrated or denied".

"For them, the F-word is a hot word, an excessive word, a word that has the potential to exceed its context and location. For these students, feminism must literally be `un-spoken' and undone as a sign."

  • "Hope in Failure: What A-level students say about feminism and the political possibilities it offers for engaging in insurrectionary practices" by Carol Taylor.
    • 21st-century girls

      • Today's schoolgirls do not see feminism as relevant to their lives although many aspire to traditionally male jobs
      • Some think feminists are just looking for someone to blame for their woes
      • They believe that differences between the sexes - such as boys' underachievement at school - are explained by the personalities of individuals rather than broader societal trends
      • But girls often fall into stereotypical behaviour patterns - eg working hard and trying to please their teacher
      • They decry sexism in the media, such as scantily-clad women dying provocatively in horror films, but do not apply the same analysis to their own lives.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today