He for She for Us
‘“As happens sometimes, a moment settled and hovered and remained for much more than a moment. And sound stopped and movement stopped for much, much more than a moment.”
Eleven years ago as an NQT in a boys’ comprehensive with my first year 12 class, I enthusiastically and somewhat naively bowled in with ‘The World’s Wife’. There were some raised eyebrows amongst the chaps in the department with my text choice but they clearly thought they’d let me get on and make my own mistakes.
First up, ‘Frau Freud’; twenty-one shocked faces in their shiny new suits and footballer knotted ties soon gave way to giggles and snorts as they realised this was their literature set text. We certainly had a discussion they hadn’t expected when they came in, at the end of which one of them put up their hand and said, as if he was asking something slightly risqué, “Miss, are you a feminist?”.
I looked at him incredulously. “Yes.” I said “And so, I imagine, are you. Don’t you think that men and women should be treated equally?”
Studying that text was a voyage of discovery for the class and their teacher. There were many laughs; the collection is often hilarious, but the beauty of that Autumn, with that group of boys was the quality of their serious discussion of women’s emancipation and historical disenfranchisement. If nothing else by the end of the year they didn’t see feminism as a dirty word.
That was the first experience, and it is one of many. One of the reasons I will miss teaching ‘Of Mice and Men’ so dearly is reaching the moment quoted above where Steinbeck wrenches the male gaze from the reader’s eyes, stops the film reel of his narrative and makes us really see Curley’s wife for the first time. That moment is transformative in terms of the way in which adolescent boys, and girls, realise that they have been indulging in exactly the same prejudices which they could see so clearly in the portrayal of Crooks, but which they often blindly accept with Curley’s wife.
Schools are fantastic at getting pupils to understand the evils of prejudice in many forms, but gender inequalities often go under the radar. I have a vivid recollection of waiting in the staffroom at the interview for my second (co-ed) school and a member of the senior team coming up and introducing himself to each of the candidates in turn (who all happened to be men apart from me) with the question “rugby or cricket?”. When he came to me he said “I suppose you’ll do Drama?” It was without guile and I found it amusing at the time but I did wonder what that meant in terms of gender based expectations across the school.
I am lucky. I went to a school for girls where the mantra was ‘independent girls, independent women’ and from the outset have had impressed upon me that I could achieve anything I was prepared to work hard for. But I know that this is not the message that all young women get from their education, and is not always the lived experience of being in schools, particularly given the fact that senior leadership in secondary schools at least is still overwhelmingly male.
So, I am a feminist. I am proud to say it. Emma Watson’s speech at the UN this week has inspired me to say it in this space in the hope that all of us might remember that it’s not a given for our pupils. Each of us in our small way has the opportunity to help our pupils see their world differently and challenge this deep-seated prejudice. After all, as Emma quite rightly concludes, ‘if not us, then who?’