Is this what a feminist education looks like?

By Lucie Richardson

In December I read an article published by RTÉ entitled ‘How to teach children about feminism’ in which Dr Suzanne O’Keeffe, a lecturer in Education, encouraged parents to avoid gender specific behaviour in the presence of children. This could range from dividing chores by gender to complimenting little girls’ appearances more than their ability. As an Education student this caught my attention, and I began to reflect on my own experiences at secondary school.

From the age of eleven, I attended an independent day school for girls, with an enthusiastic headmistress keen to give her pupils an education inspired by the rebellious spirit and courageous deeds of its two female patron saints. Indeed, in the eyes of the school, nothing screamed ‘girl power’ like being scourged, tortured on a wheel, and martyred for your faith like our famous patron saint. The Spice Girls really missed a trick there. 

Our lessons were not explicitly ‘feminist’ in their content, largely due to the constraints of the GCSE and A Level syllabus. Thanks to a petition launched by teenager June Eric Udorie, feminism was finally added to the A Level Politics curriculum in 2016. As Laura Bates said at the time, a hard fought win that was long overdue. Since then, the national curriculum has received criticism for its gender bias. For example, the organisation TeachFirst has identified that the GCSE Science curriculum doesn’t include any women’s names. As a result, it has launched a ‘STEMinism’ campaign to address the gender bias present in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. 

It’s fair to say that my school worked really hard to challenge the gender bias present in our formalised exam based education. There was a palpable push for girls to study STEM, an industry in which women are significantly underrepresented, with only 22% of roles in STEM based careers occupied by women (WISE Campaign, 2018 Workforce Statistics). Due to the dedicated teaching and encouragement provided by our school’s female dominated science department, I feel many of my peers were inspired to pursue careers in a field they might have otherwise been deterred from. 

Similarly, occasions such as International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month were always commemorated with informative events and celebrations. Presentations often featured inspirational female guest speakers, meanwhile, the school houses were named after headmistresses who had played a significant part in the school’s history. I think this decision in particular really instilled in me a belief in the importance of education, specifically women’s education, something I have pursued beyond school through my undergraduate degree. 

Our assemblies in particular played a significant role in introducing us to the concept of feminism. Our headmistress loved taking assemblies and would usually meditate on a theme, drawing on examples of inspirational women to support her points. When I look back I think this emphasised women’s contribution to society, something that has been overlooked by my textbooks. These assemblies gave me an impressive cast of role models for me to aspire to, however on reflection, I appreciate that this was not the case for everyone. 

Our assemblies were designed to fill gaps in the curriculum, however gaps remained, as many of these inspirational figures were able-bodied cisgender white and heterosexual. If we are to create a feminist education, I would argue that it is essential that we create a curriculum that represents everyone, as opposed to one with further omissions. And here lies my problem. 

At the nearby boys school, there was a widespread perception of us as a band of lacrosse stick-toting kilt-wearing Amazons unnecessarily bemoaning the fact that the world is stacked against us. Granted, the legitimacy of any argument is undermined when expressed in a sexist neanderthal screech emitted by a teenage boy boasting an on-off relationship with deodorant. However, reluctantly, I must admit that at the heart of this somewhat sexist and disdainful observation, there lies a kernel of truth. 

What our fantastic feminist education failed to do was contextualise feminism as a movement carried forward by women form a variety of backgrounds. In short, we were shown the most pleasant part of a very complicated picture. While figures such as Rosa Parks might have been cited, it was done in a way that made the prejudice they faced seem historicized rather than impacting women in the present day. I feel it was never really pointed out to us as students that while we might face discrimination as women, we were pretty privileged compared to women from different backgrounds. At this point I must state that ALL women can face acts of violence and discrimination and I by no means seek to suggest that privilege renders women immune to these awful experiences. 

However, I believe the fatal flaw in my early feminist education at school was that by showcasing predominantly white inspirational women and presenting us with feminism through the lens of a white middle class experience, they promoted a ‘one size fits all’ ideology. This somewhat belied the complex and unequal distribution of power among women in the real world. Indeed, I am sure there is nothing more irritating than hearing a predominantly white, middle class group of privately educated Home Counties girls whinge about how hard they have it. 

In particular, it ignored the complex intersection of identities such as class, race, sexuality and feminism, first explored by civil rights activist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989. Maya Angelou’s poetry was often quoted in assemblies, but was never really contextualised. It certainly should have been pointed out as belonging to a rich canon of black feminist thought born from a history of slavery, something that white women were able to profit from. In an article for Harper’s Bazaar, Rachel Elizabeth Cargle states that feminists who remain ignorant of these intersections become agents of patriarchal oppression themselves, writing: 

‘If there is not the intentional and action-based inclusion of women of color, then feminism is simply white supremacy in heels”

Do I think I was hard done by in terms of education? Of course not! However, I recognise that without interacting with a more diverse peer group at university and expanding my knowledge of feminism through my degree and personal reading, I could have become one of the women described by Cargle in her article. 

This takes me back to Dr O’Keefe’s article. While the parenting strategies designed to eliminate gender bias are undoubtedly important, they are comparatively privileged concerns when compared to the struggles faced by many women in the world. To name but one example, the Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us that many black women still live in fear of relatives and children being shot for no other reason than the colour of their skin.  Therefore, to me, the feminist education suggested by Dr O’Keeffe means nothing without engaging with other pressing social justice movements. A feminist education has to mean more than Pankhursts and Brontës, ‘who mows the lawn’ or avoiding stereotypically gendered toys. As one of my supervisors observed through her interactions with her child’s peers and their parents, these are largely middle class concerns. 

As we look forward and strive to provide new generations of self identifying girls with an education to equip them for what we hope will continue to be a better world than the present, we need to look beyond culturally dominant (largely white) conceptions of sexism. 

While I appreciate the acts that Dr O’Keeffe mentions, such as varying who mows the lawn, are necessary and tangible steps for parents to take with younger children, I feel this needs to be supplemented with more drastic action. Audre Lorde famously said, ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’ Based on this, I believe that while it is important to deconstruct expectations of gender, as Dr O’Keeffe suggests, we should prioritise teaching all children the importance of empathy. In her article, she reminds us that sexism is not something we are born with – like all prejudices, it is behaviour that is learned. It is important to remember, as Kimberle Crenshaw suggests, that sexism does not exist alone: it interacts with other forms of prejudice and discrimnation. Underpinning them all lies a lack of empathy.

By increasing a child’s ability to empathise in general, we might offer them a chance to better comprehend the unique joys and difficulties that come with different lived experiences. A feminist education is great, but we must offer one that considers and honours the full picture of women’s different experiences.

Post-publication note: Lucie’s school has been cooperative on the matter and are working to rectify the curriculum accordingly.

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