Don’t take feminism out of politics A Levels

Of the mixed bag in my Facebook page today was a link to an article, by a campaigning group called “38 degrees”  with the intriguing title: “Don’t take feminism out of politics A Levels”. It also presented a powerful argument that can not and should not be easily dismissed. Having long ago taken an interest in the curriculum on offer in our education institutions, I was particularly taken with the arguments being put forward, although still wanting to set out my own. I append the Facebook exchange with the “friend” who posted the link to the article, not to score points but rather to present some of the different perspectives when considering issues like these. As with most positive exchanges, I realised that some of the points my friend had made were valid and should be taken into account.

In a recent blog titled “gender and sexuality”, I reflected on the huge shifts I have seen in society during my lifetime regarding the role of women, without (I hope) coming down as being either too pro or too anti. In my Facebook posting I reflected on some of what I had observed when taking up in my later years an Arts based Open University degree and how this contrasted with my education experience prior to that, which was overwhelmingly male dominated. More recently, when discussing with his teachers, my own son’s A-Level options, I recall an interesting exchange with the history teacher, who rather proudly declared that the History syllabus included a module on the rise of the women’s movement, and this in a boy’s school. I was tempted then to offer an alternative view point but decided discretion was the better part of valour.

While such considerations don’t represent my primary interests when it comes to my career as a blogger, these are still relevant, not least because what is studied at schools and colleges do matter. And for the record, as I reflect on the original article, it seems to me that the part the woman’s movement has played in politics is significant and merits coverage as long as it is for the right educational reasons and not in order to promote a feminist or any other agenda.

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Me: at the risk of being shot down as a anti-feminist, my observation is the pendulum is rarely in the middle. When I did my Open University Arts course a few years back, I was struck how women’s studies featured in every module, especially compared to my experience up to then. While my initial reaction was mild amusement and approval, I ended up getting somewhat irritated. There is a place for considering feminism in studies like politics but like it or not men have played a much more significant role in politics … history, art, music, literature, philosophy, history etc.

Friend: What we need to ask then is: why is it seen that men have played a much more significant role? Women have made massive contributions to all the disciplines you listed but, historically, their work was ignored or attributed to men. The contributions made by men seem more significant because they have been acknowledged and assigned to an arbitrary canon. Education should be about exposing young people to a variety of ideologies and movements so they can draw their own conclusions based on that information. Acknowledging the role women have played shouldn’t be amusing or irritating, it should just be. Imagine how young women must feel when their studies from primary school to post-graduate level are dominated by male figures. Women make up just over half of society, they have made significant contributions to our lives in all areas and that must be acknowledged if we are to even pretend to be in an equal society.

Me: When I used the word amusing, I realized this could upset some (so apologies). The reason was that having been brought up in the “old” way, it came as a bit of a shock to find the OU incorporating women studies in every single one of its modules. But I also recognized it was also about bringing the pendulum back from the male dominated mindset that had been manifest in my learning experience prior to that. The amusement came when it became so predictable that whatever the topic this element had to be brought in even though there were imo weightier matters to consider. The irritation came in when it went too far. I recall for example in my literature studies on the canon that Jane Austin (prose) and Christina Rosetti (poetry) were introduced (partly) for this reason. No problems with that – “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Goblin Market” are still among my favourites and for good reasons. But putting Aphra Benn alongside Shakespeare when it came to poetry was a step (imo) too far. It may well be that women have now, arguably rightly so, achieved equality (or almost) with men, but only in our lifetimes, but my reading, and here we may disagree, is that men have dominated these spheres (even if for the wrong reasons) and it is wrong (imo) to not acknowledge this in whatever syllabus is put forward, merely for the sake of being politically correct. However it should also be recognised that when women did make contributions these should be rightly acknowledged especially given they did so under a backdrop of a male dominated society. But by all means encourage young women in their studies and remove unnecessary barriers that have been created over centuries of male domination.

Friend: It is certainly annoying when it feels like women or minority groups have been effectively shoe-horned into any specification just because the exam board or university feel they have to but I’m not sure how else diversity could be achieved at the moment. Most GCSE and A-Level specifications are dominated by white men so their contributions are definitely acknowledged. Hopefully, in the future when society is more equal than it is now (because we still have a long way to go), it won’t feel like political correctness anymore which would be awesome! There will always be some writers you can do without, I have no good memories of Byron for example but I get why he was there, for what felt like months, in my degree studies! It’s all about being given a range of options, especially in literature, so you can discover your own preferences. My concern with GCSE and A-Level specifications is that if topics are not explicitly mentioned they won’t be covered due to pressures on teachers to teach to the exam and we are then doing young people a disservice and they may have the experience you did at degree level of topics feeling forced. That’s definitely not ideal.

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