In the week of the release on DVD of the film Suffragette, a visit to an all boys school's feminist society shows what progress has been made.
This week I joined CARE International's Helen Pankhurst, direct descendant of Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst to speak to the newly formed feminist society in a London all boys secondary school. The visit was linked to this week's release on DVD of the film Suffragette and Helen spoke about her involvement (and brief appearance) in the film, as well as her emotion on first seeing the final version. However, beyond the behind the scenes insights, the real purpose of the visit was to talk to boys at the school and other members of their school community about how they felt gender equality was relevant to their lives.
Language Matters, but Labels can be unhelpful
Results from a quick survey the boys had taken after watching the film a few weeks before showed that an encouraging 60% identified with the label feminist before they watched the film, with another 60% saying that the film had changed their views. However in the face to face discussion, while feminism was described in inclusive terms by many, some expressed that the label was unhelpful and could be divisive. Further it was clear that among the wider student body, gendered terms were still commonly used to belittle each other. Playing hockey was not given much esteem as it was seen as a 'girls' sport, and 'gay' was still used - albeit in rapid decline - as a euphemism for weakness. Nevertheless, when asked about the priorities for the modern gender equality movement, there was strong consensus that challenging everyday sexism, even if it seems small compared to the immense injustices that exist elsewhere in the world was key. Language matters and it was heartening that the boys were prepared to intervene with each other on how they spoke and joked.
Three other takeaways:
First was how skillfully the film illustrates the different dimensions of inequality and powerlessness that CARE' work seeks to redress. From the personal agency of characters who have no power over their own assets, their body or basic decisions; to their unequal relationships with partners or employers and the structural impediments from voting rights to family law. This led to a great discussion on the vital importance of gender equality in overcoming poverty and injustice.
Second, it was a reminder at both the opportunities and difficulties of all boys' education. I myself attended an all boys school, and I could recognise how self-contained cultures, including sexism can grow without the natural pushback that girls would undoubtedly bring. It was great running some simple exercises with the group on how power and gender inter-relate to start to explore what kinds of unconscious privilege they have, and how much inequality is invisible to them
Lastly, it underlined to me the obvious necessity of having compulsory sex education in school that really addresses gender, masculinity and healthy relationships. While CARE is campaigning to bring this into schools in parts of central and east Africa, and is pushing in the Balkans to move the teaching from a voluntary to a mandatory footing, the UK is holding out. As impressive as student led groups like the feminist society are, to engage the rest of the school and 'hard to reach' young men and women the government needs to take the lead. While the UK impresses with its language on supporting gender equality in the rest of the world, serious action is still required at home. In the spirit of the Pankhurst family, it is deeds not words that will change society.
Hear more about these issues by joining Helen Pankhurst and a host of leading activists and performers such as Annie Lennox, Bianca Jagger, Bridget Christie, Leyla Hussein and Natasha Walter at CARE International's Walk in Her Shoes rally and walk at The Scoop, on March 6 at 10am.