Students in England bring feminism out of the history books and into the here and now.
Do you remember having a serious conversation about feminism in high school? Neither do I. There were history lessons on the suffrage movement, sure, and English reading lists included the occasional Ibsen play. But if we did talk feminism or gender equality, the message was clear—feminism was something you study. It was something that mattered to other (mostly dead) people. Not something that had much to do with our lives now.
It’s that silence that students at Altrincham Grammar School outside Manchester, England, wanted to break. Witnessing and experiencing sexist harassment and abuse on a daily basis, the students decided their school could use a dose of equality.
So, back in March, they kicked off a campaign called We Need Feminism in which female students photographed themselves holding homemade signs, each beginning with “I need feminism because…” Inspired by a campaign begun last year at Duke University, the messages range from biting social critiques (“…because people still ask what the victim was wearing”) to deeply personal statements (“…because my cousin shouldn’t be ‘on the shelf’ at 24”). Taken together, they evoke a deeply chauvinistic social and institutional world that millions of young women face on a daily basis.
The campaign was only latest for Altrincham’s Feminist Society (FemSoc), a student group cofounded by 17-year-old Jinan Younis after experiencing particularly hurtful harassment on a school trip last year. “After returning from this school trip I started to notice how much the girls at my school suffer because of the pressures associated with our gender,” she writes in the Guardian. “Many of the girls have eating disorders, some have had peers heavily pressure them into sexual acts, others suffer in emotionally abusive relationships where they are constantly told they are worthless.”
FemSoc suffered abuse from peers and reluctance from school administrators from the very beginning, but the opposition reached fever pitch after the group’s “We Need Feminism” posts appeared on Facebook this past March. Almost immediately, Younis’ male peers unleashed a torrent of sexist and racist abuse, much of it on Twitter. “I was called a ‘feminist bitch,’ accused of ‘feeding [girls] bullshit,’” Younis recounts. “The more girls started to voice their opinions about gender issues, the more vitriolic the boys' abuse became.”
But here’s where it gets really messed up. Instead of confronting the male students and using the incident to kick off a discussion about gender issues, administrators at Altrincham simply told FemSoc to take down the site. This left the girls isolated, says Younis, and more vulnerable than ever to abuse that was somehow going unpunished. “It is appalling that an institution responsible for preparing young women for adult life has actively opposed our feminist work,” she writes.
Thankfully, that wasn’t quite the end of the story. Hearing what had happened at Altrincham, a group of students and teachers in London started a Tumblr page in solidarity called Feminism Belongs in Schools. Launched just last month, the page combines the personal and political in way akin to FemSoc, but also has ties to the worldwide Who Needs Feminism? project that emerged last year. These connections have helped lend the Altrincham story international attention.
The solidarity campaign’s worldwide scope underscores how big this problem is. American schools, for instance, are no better. “High schools overwhelmingly disregard the subject,” writes Anna Diamond for Ms. Magazine. After a high point in the 1970s, when public schools across the country began moving gender equality into the curriculum, progress stalled. “When my mother attended public high school in Santa Monica in the 1970s… she was lucky enough to take [a women’s studies course] at her school,” Diamond adds. “As a high school senior in a similar public school in 2011, I have not had access to any such classes, and women’s contributions still don’t get as much attention as those of men.”
Part of the problem is that topics like these are just not priorities in American education. Even finding data on how many women’s studies courses exist in U.S. high schools is a daunting task. The Department of Education has plenty of numbers on the gender gap in math and science performance, but nothing on how many female writers a 10th grader can expect to read in English lit, or how many schools teach their students about intersectionality.* By and large feminism is a similarly low priority in British schools.
But that doesn’t mean people like Jinan Younis and her classmates are slowing down. With the We Need Feminism page still online (they never actually took it down), and supporting actions in London and worldwide, FemSoc continues to bring feminism into the 21st century—that is, into the here and now. “If you thought the fight for female equality was over,” Younis writes, “I'm sorry to tell you that a whole new round is only just beginning.”
*To be sure, there are inspiring exceptions. Check out Ileana Jimenez’s experiences of teaching intersectional feminism in a New York high school for an exciting alternative.
Image above: Activists from Latin America, Europe, South Asia, and North America express solidarity with Altrincham’s Feminist Society (Feminism Belongs in Schools Tumblr page).