fEMPOWER: workshopping gender with high schoolers
Last year, a group of students from the University of Sydney Wom*n’s Collective began teaching workshops on feminism to high school students under the brand fEMPOWER. We began the workshops after one collective member shared her experience of coming to university with very little understanding of feminism, outside of what was offered by the mainstream media. A lot of us in the collective could relate to this experience. Some of us had arrived at university with only a vague grasp of the term ‘feminism’ and a rough understanding that it was a Good Thing. Others had been wary of the label throughout high school.
We wanted to create a way for students to engage with ideas on gender stereotypes and inequality that was not simply an overview of the history of feminism. We were all struck by the dearth of feminist discussion enabled by the New South Wales syllabus. Even when addressed, feminism in schools is presented as a straightforward recount of the fight for women’s suffrage, the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and the introduction of various anti-discrimination measures throughout the 20th Century.
The main problem with this method of teaching is that it views feminism as a static, homogenous movement that aims to correct specific and quantifiable inequalities. This style focuses on a narrow scope of issues that are deemed most relevant to the “majority” of women. All of these are fundamental tenets of feminism and the impact of the changes in those areas is profound and far-reaching. However this alienates feminism, and the discrimination it fights, from the very current issues of gendered violence, rape culture, sexual objectification, men’s rights activists (MRAs) and the very real but less-explicit-than-they-once-were obstacles to gender equality.
Issues relating to gender are not niche. They are not elective or historical. They reach right into those classrooms, affecting every single student. Students we worked with talked of being cat-called, harassed, objectified, condescended to and, most notably, excluded from the same spaces their male counterparts were invited to. One student, who had played rugby for years, had recently been told by her coach that she could no longer play in the mixed gender team because her breasts were distracting the male players.
Another issue with the standard teaching of feminism is that it focuses primarily on white, straight cis-gendered women in order to make the movement “marketable”. Women of colour, women with disabilities, trans women, and queer women are not only absent from the retelling, their historical struggles with, and exclusion from, the mainstream women’s liberation movement is denied. We want fEMPOWER workshops to challenge these exclusions. We look at the importance of women such as Aunty Jenny, Stella Young, Laverne Cox and bell hooks, while recognising the limitations of the more conventionally palatable Taylor Swift and Lena Dunham.
Similarly, we want to avoid the tendency to assume that “radical” ideas are beyond the capacity of high school students. Many students we have met are extremely well-versed in the issues we discuss with them, volunteering thoughtful and considered ideas and observations. Our organisers emerge from the workshops speaking at double speed, communicating just how impressed and moved we were by the students.
We have, at times, been met with wariness. The perception of the self-identified feminist as angry, unshaven and man-hating still persists. Our decision to start the workshops was not driven by a desire to dispel that image of a feminist.
We consider anger an important part of any movement that identifies injustice and wants to bring about change. We want our workshops to legitimise the anger and hurt that can be a product of repeated, systemic discrimination – instead of invalidating it to appease critics.
“Man-hating” is an over-simplified term that aims to dismiss the very valid and rational feelings some feminists feel towards some men. We talk explicitly about the term in our workshops, intending to explain that while there are many men in all our lives that we love and cherish, we do hate the male-privilege extended to them. We distinguish man-hate as an individualised attack, as opposed to a structural critique.
Moreover, unshaven is just a nasty extension of the rigid and dehumanising rules enforced on how women present themselves. The fact that we may recoil from the idea of a woman with hair on her legs demonstrates just how embedded our double standards are and just how greatly these workshops are needed.
That said, the aim of fEMPOWER workshops is not to insist that the only way to be a feminist is to start raging and throwing out all your razors. Perhaps this is where some feminists decrying this generation’s apathy miss the mark. Dictating a correct method for being a feminist is simply enforcing another set of rules on women, which can be just as inflexible and demeaning as the ones they replace. Telling girls to not wear high heels and tight clothes because it buys into a male sexual fantasy, to not have casual sex because it shows a lack of respect for yourself, or to not be engage in “girly” activities because it diminishes your worth reinforces the idea that there is one “right” way to be a woman or a girl.
Running these workshops has shown how important it is to show students that there is no single way to express their gender and their sexuality. It is theirs, and only theirs, to express however they wish. We start our fEMPOWER workshops by telling the students we will learn as much from them as they will learn from us, a promise that is consistently met.
Arabella is part of the fEMPOWER team that runs feminist workshops at high schools. If you would like to request a workshop at your school, or become a volunteer with the organisation, visit the website.