Feminism and gender studies have, in Australia at least, often been the domain of the university. They’re typically subjects that come after secondary schooling, even though this is when young students are most impressionable and vulnerable to sexism and sexist influences. High school can be a time when young women first begin to notice that they face a less-than-even-playing field.
One high school in Victoria is leading changes in this area of feminist education. Last November a feminist studies elective designed at Fitzroy High School in Melbourne was made available to other schools throughout the state. This new feminism curriculum, called “Fightback”, grew out of a lunch-time feminist collective at the school. This group was established in 2013 to provide a forum for discussions around experiences of sexism in everyday life as well as in the media.
The new course is aligned with the Victorian curriculum and is aimed at both male and female secondary students. The Fightback curriculum covers topics including gender inequality, systemic sexism, objectification, representations of gender in the media, and violence against women. In Timna Jacks’s article on the course, Fitzroy High teacher Briony O’Keefe explains, ‘We’re trying to get young men and women to think a bit more critically about the sorts of sexist behaviours they might either engage in or see on a daily basis.’
The question is – will other schools follow in offering this course? There has already been interest expressed by students and parents from other schools and the curriculum information has been made available to Victorian schools. Teacher Briony also plans to work on persuading other schools to come on board in the future.
However, there is not always a positive reception towards the study of feminism and gender within schools. Some recent attempts to start up feminist societies in high schools have experienced a backlash, as happened in England in 2013 when a 17-year-old girl tried setting up a feminist society at her school. The society ended up on the receiving end of abusive, sexist and racist comments from their male peers. This prompted a teacher to write her own article highlighting the negative way that feminists, and even the word “feminism” itself, are perceived in British classrooms.
In fact, in England there are plans to drop feminism as a topic from their politics syllabus for high school A-level qualifications. Mary Wollstonecraft would become the only female political thinker who is studied and the story of the suffragettes would be moved to a section on pressure groups.
On a more positive note, in Ontario, Canada gender studies was recently added to the high school curriculum in 2013. However, this only came about after an eight year campaign by five young feminist women. They were moved into taking action after a discussion of the case of a Canadian teenager, who committed suicide after she was allegedly raped at a high school party. The gender studies course will provide a safe space for secondary students to learn and talk about gender and consent.
In recent years there has been a decline in gender studies majors on offer in Australia, even at the university level where gender studies majors have formed part of many university courses.
It seems to take a dedicated group of people and a lot of pushing, for feminism to be added to the curriculum. Studying feminism in high school is beneficial for young women as they go through a time in their lives when they often become more aware of everyday sexism. Feminist studies can also be beneficial to young men. Making all people more aware of sexism is the first step towards combating it. If people can be educated while they are still young and their attitudes are less entrenched, they are more likely to be aware of any sexist behaviour. The fact that this feminist curriculum has been developed by the students and staff at Fitzroy High School, and that the course has both female and male participants, shows that there is hope for the development and wider acceptance of feminist studies in schools.
Image: Christopher Dombres
Jessica Sheather-Neumann is the organiser of a writers group in Canberra with over 50 members. She reads and writes young adult novels and has been published in First, the University of Canberra’s creative writing magazine. She has a Graduate Certificate in Editing and Publishing. You can find her on Twitter @ReadingJessica.