Teach feminism in schools

28th August 2009 at 01:00

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 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. Last year, 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.

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 . " They then went on to express sentiments entirely compatible with feminism. My book coins a new word for this kind of non-feminist - "feminisn'ts".

I would like feminisn'ts to become feminists, but it is enough for me that they embrace feminist ideas. But how can teachers be expected to teach feminism when so few of them actually identify as feminists?

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 across the curriculum, not just in "feminism lessons", and for boys as well as girls.

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.

With feminism classes to equip girls and boys to face the various demands of life inside and outside the home, and a feminist-friendly curriculum which recognises the role of women across the board, we'll be most of the way towards ensuring that today's children are not just feminists - but proud of it.

Ellie Levenson is author of "The Noughtie Girl's Guide to Feminism".

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