Calling all Feminist Educators:

Since retiring and becoming a twitter tragic over the last 2 years in my retirement what has struck me most is the extensive amount of debate and focus on feminist issues: gender justice; gender injustice; the importance of and the irrelevance of feminism in social media.

But there is one place where feminism debate and discussion seems to be alarmingly thin on the ground, especially in Australia – school education! From the perspective of an outsiders like myself it appears to be a feminist free zone.

Current debates on social medial  cover ranges the following: Continue reading


How Inclusive is your English Literature syllabus?

Sir, when are we going to study a book that is not about a sulky teenage boy on a beach – year 9 Girl

How inclusive is your English literature curriculum? What authors are you studying and who are the key characters?

This short video made during the 2014 Melbourne Writers Festival could be a useful starting pint for a discussion on the decisions schools and teachers make about the literature selected for study.

In the video, children’s authors Kirsty Murray and Mike Bartlett suggest that our efforts over the past two decades to encourage boys to read has had the unintended effect of increasing the level of gender stereotyping in children’s literature.*

Murray reports that there are many schools where girls can go right through from year 7 to yr 12 without ever studying a single novel with a strong female protagonist. Is this because we are so fearful of putting the boys off? What is the impact of this on girls and on boys?

In an article in The Saturday Paper, Samantha Trenoweth talks as a parent about the accidental discovery about this issue at her daughter’s school

“…a week before the start of school … I logged on to the school intranet, printed the year 10 book list…

I ticked off the set English texts: Orwell, Steinbeck, Shakespeare. All important writers but, damn, no women again. I’d loved Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Brontës when I was 15. I’d nicked off with my parents’ copy of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and, at the urging of a history teacher, read Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police. So I’d read eclectically but mostly they were books by women.

It occurred to me, that night, that there had been no books by women on last year’s school list either. Had there been any the year before?

I downloaded the 2014 lists for years 7 to 12. There was one book by a female author for year 7 (Red by Libby Gleeson). After that, students of Standard English at my daughter’s school weren’t set another book by a woman ever, all the way through high school. Students of Advanced and Extension English fared slightly better. Nothing until year 11, when they were plunged into the deep end with Virginia Woolf (forgive the terrible pun), followed by a bonanza of Dickinson, Plath and Modjeska in year 12.

I was perplexed. We’re talking about an enlightened, inclusive co-ed school here, and the school was certainly responsible. State government bodies set texts for the final years of high school (those studied for the VCE, the HSC and so on), but book choices from kindergarten to year 10 are left to individual schools.

So, was this an oversight? Had the school decided women’s writing was so complex that only advanced year 12 students could safely grapple with it? Or was it that old chestnut that tells us girls will read anything but boys will only read books by and about themselves?

I wasn’t the only mother who’d noticed. A bunch of us wrote a very polite and up-beat letter to the head of English …

The teacher responded by conceding that this topic was often discussed over the English staffroom urn. We were floored. Really? Women’s contribution to the literary canon is still up for discussion over a Bushells and a Scotch Finger in 2014? Enough with the preamble! Surely it’s time to just add the books.”

This issue goes beyond the English curriculum. As one woman writer, Robyn Black who constantly gets asked by men at book launches to sign books for their wives reflects:

“… I am [also] filled more with questions about the larger implications of men not reading fiction by women than about the causes. If you think that because I’m female what I have to say in my novel won’t interest you, what about the things I say when I am talking to you about the research project in which we’re both engaged? About the funding needed for the public school system? How about when I am arguing a case in court? Filing an insurance claim?

Is it credible that fiction occupies a unique place? Credible that men who dismiss what female storytellers have to say as irrelevant to them, aren’t also inclined to dismiss – albeit unconsciously – what females of every variety have to say? To think it somehow less relevant than what the other men say? Is it credible that this often unexamined aversion is a special case of some kind? A glitch?”

The Stella Schools Program is a new initiative designed to address this issue. Its goal is to change this culture and inspire students – girls and boys alike –to engage with quality literature that includes female authors and female characters and that engages the whole spectrum of human experience.

The Stella Program has a focus on Girls and Boys from Year 7 -12 and offers the following:
• School visits by notable Australian writers, educators and publishers;
• Hands-on writing workshops;
• Teaching notes on all Stella Prize shortlisted books (for Years 10–12);
• Resources for all secondary-school levels; and,
• PD for teachers and librarians.

You can find out more about their activities here.

This is a great start but isn’t waiting to year 7 a bit too late to address this issue?

*The video discussion is limited in that it examines the issues only from a gender perspective. So it needs to be seen as a starting point only.

Street Harassment: breaking it down by race/privilege

I am sure many teachers and students saw the Hollaback video that went viral a few weeks ago of a woman walking around New York city streets for over 10 hours, and the unending street harassment from men that followed her every move.

It makes for great viewing leading into a classroom discussion:

  • Is this the reality for all women?
  • It is a similar experience for all women?
  • Does it happen in all locations?
  • How does it effect women? and men?
  • What would be different for women and girls if this phenomena did not occur?
  • Why does it happen?
  • Do men understand how it impacts women? And, if they did, would they do it anyway?
  • Why do men do it?

But there were two other articles, one with also with a video, posted about the Hollaback video that have not yet gone viral, nor are they likely to.

Firstly Collier Myerson’s article notes that the NYC harassment video showed the experience of one woman – a white middle class woman – and the only harassing men shown in the video were Black and Latino.

I confess that while I did notice this in passing I explored no further. It just left me with a vague feeling of unease.  But am 100% confident that if I was a Black or Latino man or a woman it would have been the first thing that jumped out at me. I would have reacted by thinking, “I bet she only walked through Latino and Black residential areas. Did they do that deliberately?”

Collier notes that this video serves as a de facto cautionary tale: to avoid Black and Latino men at every turn, because from the looks of it, they alone are loathsome predators.

I tend to think this is spot on. I may not have noticed the ‘race messages’ explicitly but I am sure that its implicit message would tend to validate my unconscious reactions and responses.

I am not saying that I am racist. In fact I work hard at noticing how these messages are produced and on checking my unreflective initial responses to situations. But I am saying that this is a life-long task. One doesn’t just arrive at a morally righteous non-racist state. We may not be racists but racism still inhabits us. My response to this video, my inadequate response to its implicit message, is not unique.

I am pretty sure that Hollaback did not intend to create nor legitimise fear of men of colour. But that does not take away its unintended message.

In fact, in response to criticism of his video, Hollaback acknowledged that there were white men who harassed, but ‘for whatever reason’, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera and so was omitted.

This ‘”for whatever reason” quoted above is quite important.

In the second article, “White men don’t catcall, they harass in other ways” Lee Dockett suggests that the reason is related to white privilege.

 …white men, on average, don’t catcall in the same way that men of color do—and oftentimes, as I’ve learned, they don’t do it at all.

That, of course, is not to say that white men don’t have their own predatory nature—one that is expressed in ways unique to their privilege. As we know from countless court cases, it’s not that white men don’t hassle women … it’s that they do it in a different way.

 For all men, harassment of women has more to do with establishing power than it does sexual interest; they do it to control space, both public (the very street you both walk on) and personal (a woman’s self-set boundaries). Men of color catcall vocally and visibly on the sidewalk because they have to—not that there’s ever excuse for harassment. They need the “Sexy!” and “Smile!” to create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces that social constructs and institutional racism have never afforded them control over.

White men, on the other hand, have no use for that sort of catcalling. They marked their territory centuries ago. So, instead, their sexual harassment is less invasive and harder to recognize—even when it’s staring you in the face. They do it in bars, at parties, on the frat row at your local college campus, in boardrooms, and other places men of color are never privy to, at least not in positions of power.

Myerson also notes that the lack of women of colour in the video implies that it is a problem only for white women:

 Additionally, black and brown women were excluded, as if we do not exist, or are not affected by street harassment when, in fact, we are more endangered by it. Black and brown women, women of color, of size, and trans women are among our society’s most vulnerable. Black women are at a greater risk of domestic violence. For trans women, even leaving the house can be fraught with emotional and physical violence. Women of color, regardless of gender expression, have an extra layer of fear and anxiety when walking down the street. The Hollaback video’s omission of white men, and the omission of black and brown women, worked together in an sinister alchemy to reinforce centuries-old stereotypes about who needs to be saved and protected and who needs to be feared and controlled.

But Myerson has the last word on this issue because she decided to make a similar video using women of colour and guess what happened.

 As (bad) luck would have it, while we were shooting a video about how women of color were affected by street harassment, one of our interviewees was approached — totally unsolicited — by a white man who asked her for a kiss.

How apt, and what a great set of resources for a very important classroom discussion.


Proud to be a Feminist Left-splainer

“Women of the right are just as committed to the advancement of women as their sisters on the left.” – claims Paula Matthewson

Tommy rot – I say

You know when we spend all our time discussing who is willing to call themselves a feminist I really think we have lost our way. I am heartily sick of writers like Paula Matthewson who assume that real feminism is about individual advancement for individual women and that the left see it as ‘being a victim”.

Feminism has nothing to do with being a victim.

In fact when the first domestic violence refugees and organisations were being formalised in the 70s the feminists used to get pretty dirty with anyone who referred to women who had been subjected to violence as victims. The insisted they were not victims, but survivors.This is still an important semantic distinction.

It is not about girl power, individual success, or more women in politics and on boards.

These have a place as ways of influencing policies, services and businesses (depending of course on the politics of the individuals involved). They can also be seen as a by-product of the struggle against a patriarchial system.

Frankly I don’t think having Julie Bishop in Cabinet has made one jot of difference for:

  • single parents,
  • Indigenous women,
  • refugee women,
  • women fighting to save the water table and the environment from fracking,
  • women running or using domestic violence services,
  • women in TAFE, or university,
  • women who need quality child care services,
  • women under 30 seeking work,
  • women in countries where our development programs have been slashed.

Having more Julie Bishops in top law jobs, as CEOs on Boar, in Cabinet wont help either. And having Julie Bishop as PM would not be good for women

Paul Mattewson states that:

Women of the right are just as committed to the advancement of women as their sisters on the left. Women of the right are mothers too, and they want to see their daughters have prosperous and fulfilling lives. These women don’t reject the principles of feminism – equality and the advancement of women – but they see them being achieved in different ways. If that view is flawed, yelling at them to take on the feminist mantle will not correct it.

But that is just the problem. Advancing the cause of women is not about making sure your daughters have prosperous and fulfilling lives. That is ridiculous. Most conservative men want that for their daughters too. Was Tony Abbott being a feminist when he arranged for Francis to have a $60,000 under the table scholarship?

For me being a feminist is about looking at policies, programs and issues from the perspective of whose interests are served well and whose less well served. There is overwhelming evidence that women are systemic losers from policies that promote war, attack: working conditions, promote xenophobia, privatize services, ignore climate change issues, defund community legal aid, overseas development, and reduce access t ad the quality of childcare. This list could be extended but I think you get my point.