Gendered toys and classroom activities introduce children to stereotypes early. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Should we be teaching feminism in primary schools?

Our children's education is reinforcing the idea that it is natural for women and girls to be decorative, whereas men and boys are the active ones. Do we want them to be learning blind faith in gender stereotypes?

For me it all started when my son decided to teach me a song he’d learned at school.

“It’s called ‘Jesus Is My Superhero’ and it’s even got special actions!”

All of which sounded promising, so I settled down on the sofa to watch.

According to Jesus Is My Superhero, the Son of God is vastly superior to a number of twentieth-century cartoon creations. He’s better than Superman, better than Spiderman, better than Batman – you get the idea. I was enjoying the performance but did soon start to get that niggling feeling you often get when you’re a feminist parent – are there any women here? Is there going to be a female superhero? Wonder Woman? She-Ra?  Would Penelope Pitstop count?

“He’s better than Barbie!”

Barbie? That’s right, He’s better than Barbie, the only woman of the lot. I don’t know who should feel more insulted, Jesus Himself or the whole of womankind, and that’s before you even take the actions into account. For not only is Barbie’s superhero status tenuous to begin with, but her superhero action is brushing her hair. I’ve nothing against hair-brushing, but seriously: flying through the air, catching villains in enormous spider webs – those are superhero powers. But hair-brushing? What kind of sexist nonsense is this? Should they really be teaching this in schools?

It’s a minor thing, I know, but the hair-brushing annoyed me. It annoyed me far more the fact that the song was about Jesus, and I’m a secularist who doesn’t believe in religious indoctrination in schools. The truth is, I suspect my son has a good enough mix of external influences to make up his own mind about Christianity. When it comes to the blind faith in gender that surrounds him, I’m not so confident. It’s not just that the stereotypes are limiting on an individual basis. They are everywhere and they embed, ever so gradually, the sense that is natural for women and girls to be decorative, whereas men and boys are the active ones. This isn’t what I want my son to learn at school, a place that should be opening his mind, not closing it.

Speaking with other parents, I find I’m not alone in having these concerns. Other examples of stereotyping include: princess and pirate weeks; “tidying up” as a reward for girls while boys get to play sport; football days for boys and cooking days for girls (“but they love it,” apparently); gendered icing colours in baking classes. All this might sound benign – just a bit of fun – but as researchers such as Cordelia Fine have demonstrated, merely being made aware of gender stereotypes – or even just differences, for instance by dividing children up into boy groups and girl groups without further comment  –  can affect performance. At a time when children are discovering new things and working out what they can and cannot do, their aspirations are being distorted by constant reminders that certain activities just aren’t for them.  

Of course I’m aware the groups I speak to may be self-selecting. There will be people who see objections to gender stereotyping as a form of heresy and who claim that boys are boys and girls are girls and that is that. To them, what I’d see as a passive “hands off” approach to gender becomes, on the contrary, aggressive, politically correct meddling. For instance, right-wing commentator James Delingpole sees something “rather sinister and Brave-New-World-ish” in the activities of groups such as Pink Stinks and Let Toys Be Toys. Yet what is more restrictive and controlling: a group of parents who want simply children to be able to choose their own colours, or, to take an example from the US, a school who colludes in the bullying of a nine-year-old schoolboy who merely wishes to have My Little Pony on his lunchbag? Grayson Bruce, owner of the bag in question, was told by his teachers that the way to avoid taunts would be to take in something different. Change yourself, not your environment, even if there’s nothing wrong with you. Is this the message educators should be giving children? I accept there’s always a balance between how far a school prepares children for the world as it is and the world as it should be, but I’m pretty sure that in this case, a line has been crossed.

In Feminism Is For Everybody, first published in 2000, bell hooks argues that “future feminist movement must necessarily think of feminist education as significant in the lives of everyone”:

Despite the economic gains of individual feminist women, many women who have amassed wealth or accepted the contribution of wealthy males, who are our allies in struggle, we have created no schools founded on feminist principles for girls and boys, for women and men. By failing to create a mass-based educational movement to teach everyone about feminism we allow mainstream patriarchal mass media to remain the primary place where folks learn about feminism, and most of what they learn is negative.

I realise this will be far too revolutionary for some (James Delingpole, you may need to sit down). But once you start thinking about what schools could do to change perspectives on men and women, some of the things they are doing right now seem not only depressing, but a terrible waste.  And yet it’s difficult, given the pressures that are out there. How far should schools be at the forefront of change? And can they be, even if they try?

My own partner is a male primary teacher. He regularly packs his sandwiches in a lunchbox which is, if not covered in My Little Ponies, then at least a very striking shade of pink. Has this little gesture made any difference to his pupils? Well, they have noticed; so much so that they clubbed together and bought him a blue lunchbox covered with cars as an end-of-term present (“we felt sad you didn’t have one in the right colour”). It’s a very nice lunchbox but it does lead to the question: have we reached a situation where if teachers don’t stereotype their pupils, pupils will feel unsettled enough to stereotype the teachers first?  What lessons are these children learning, and when, if not now, can they ever be un-learned?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Getty
Show Hide image

Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.