Let's speak about the F word

Posted on: 01 Jun 2016
Posted by: Mark Woodward

Mark Woodward, Head of Careers at Bablake School in Coventry, discusses the importance of feminism and challenges male leaders and teachers to be positive role models in schools.

The F word - feminism - is very much in the news. First there was discussion about the Fawcett Society’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T-shirt, then Beyoncé declared herself a feminist in huge lights on stage. Emma Watson’s #HeForShe speech on feminism at the UN called for men to be involved with the fight for equality and Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project has campaigned tirelessly for better sex education in our PSHCE delivery, while highlighting criminal (in all senses of the word) sexism faced by young girls and women.

Living then as we do in a democratic, civilized society that offers opportunity for all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual preference and age, quite simply every educator (leader, teacher and parent) should naturally describe him or herself as a feminist.

In a year when Bablake has celebrated 40 years of being fervently coeducational, it may seem bizarre timing for a group of final year A level students to establish a Feminist Society. As well as raising over £2000 for Womankind Worldwide and organising a collection of cash and sanitary products for a local refuge and underfunded charity supporting the homeless, in weekly meetings, our group has discussed a broad range of feminist issues and highlighted areas to improve daily school life.

Laura Bates has visited Bablake the last four years to talk to pupils as part of our Sixth Form Enrichment programme. She has been a welcome advocate for our Feminist Society, saying:

"In the age of social media, sexting and online pornography, and in the absence of compulsory sex and relationships education on issues such as sexual consent and healthy relationships, it has never been more important to provide young people with safe, supportive spaces where they can explore topics such as gender stereotypes, experiences of harassment and inequality.

For this reason school feminist societies are a vital resource for young people, providing an invaluable opportunity for discussion, reflection, learning and action. With almost one third of teenage girls experiencing unwanted sexual touching at school and 5500 sexual offences including 600 rapes reported in UK schools over a three year period, it is vital that schools and teachers support these groups and give students the help, encouragement and information they need to help them tackle these pressing issues."

Laura’s inexhaustible but emotionally draining campaigning highlights the relentless bombardment of hypocrisy, double standards, body image pressure, sexting, relationship expectations and online abuse that girls and women face.

Both she and Emma Watson challenge male leaders and teachers to be positive role models in schools. It is a message I have advocated since university in the 1980s; long discussions with one of my best friends in my final year confirmed my life philosophy as fiercely pro-feminist and yes, men could be feminists.

A good number of boys have joined Bablake’s Feminist Society and why wouldn’t they? Feminism is about treating everyone as equal, while first highlighting any injustice where girls or women do not have equality. Feminism does not threaten masculinity, nor does it prevent anyone enjoying sport, beer, or any activity others might stoically but erroneously claim as a male-only privilege or pursuit. Laura Bates is always keen to assert feminism ultimately assists all young people find their rightful place in society.

Bablake’s feminists have educated adults as well as their peers and Y13 student Hannah Mordey, one of the society’s key founders, explains why this was necessary:

“Our initial aims were to educate and change attitudes in school to create a fairer, more equal community which was fully supportive of everyone.

Initially we embarked upon educating both pupils and staff about what feminism is, in the hope of eradicating some of the misconceptions and generalisations associated with feminism, making it clear it was a movement for everyone, not just women.

We have successfully managed to convey this message and now had many boys join the society. We have also had significant support from male staff like Mr. Woodward.”

“We hope that, via our discussions about feminism and inequality, any stigma of calling yourself a feminist has been removed and more people will feel able to stand up to everyday sexism.

We have been engaged in a lot of discussion regarding uniform, with the hope that a non-binary uniform will be introduced, which would support the transgender community and break down gender stereotypes.

We have also discussed intersectionality feminism as a positive support helping people see how forms of oppression such as sexism, homophobia, racism, transphobia and xenophobia are all interconnected.”

Feminism campaigns for equality in every aspect of a woman’s life and as a consequence men’s too. There is nothing morally wrong in upsetting a patriarchy or exposing the faults of the Muirfields of our society. Outside the UK, no-one can fail to have been moved by the courage of Malala, whose fight to ensure all girls received education almost cost her life. In the UK, we would expect equality to ensure fair wages, equal pay and the same employment rights for all.

Feminism helps ensure the greatest discrimination in history, against half the human race, is halted once and for all. Every educator should be at the front of that campaign.

This blog has been written by Mark, following a recent article in The Telegraph, which he also contributed to.

Mark Woodward

About Mark Woodward

Mark Woodward is Head of Careers at Bablake School, an academically selective co-educational day school in Coventry.