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

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The UK is dangerously close to breaking apart - there's one way to fix it

We must rethink our whole constitutional settlement. 

When the then-Labour leader John Smith set up a report on social justice for what would be the incoming government in 1997, he said we must stop wasting our most precious resource – "the extraordinary skills and talents of ordinary people".

It is one of our party’s greatest tragedies that he never had the chance to see that vision put into practice. 

At the time, it was clear that while our values of equality, solidarity and tolerance endured, the solutions we needed were not the same as those when Labour was last in power in the 1970s, and neither were they to be found in the policies of opposition from the 1980s. 

The Commission on Social Justice described a UK transformed by three revolutions:

  • an economic revolution brought about by increasing globalisation, innovation and a changing labour market
  • a social revolution that had seen the role of women in society transformed, the traditional family model change, inequality ingrained and relationships between people in our communities strained
  • a political revolution that challenged the centralisation of power, demanded more individual control and accepted a different role for government in society.

Two decades on, these three revolutions could equally be applied to the UK, and Scotland, today. 

Our economy, society and our politics have been transformed even further, but there is absolutely no consensus – no agreement – about the direction our country should take. 

What that has led to, in my view, is a society more dangerously divided than at any point in our recent history. 

The public reject the status quo but there is no settled will about the direction we should take. 

And instead of grappling with the complex messages that people are sending us, and trying to find the solutions in the shades of grey, politicians of all parties are attached to solutions that are black or white, dividing us further. 

Anyone in Labour, or any party, who claims that we can sit on the margins and wait for politics to “settle down” will rightly be consigned to history. 

The future shape of the UK, how we govern ourselves and how our economy and society should develop, is now the single biggest political question we face. 

Politics driven by nationalism and identity, which were for so long mostly confined to Scotland, have now taken their place firmly in the mainstream of all UK politics. 

Continuing to pull our country in these directions risks breaking the United Kingdom once and for all. 

I believe we need to reaffirm our belief in the UK for the 21st century. 

Over time, political power has become concentrated in too few hands. Power and wealth hoarded in one corner of our United Kingdom has not worked for the vast majority of people. 

That is why the time has come for the rest of the UK to follow where Scotland led in the 1980s and 1990s and establish a People’s Constitutional Convention to re-establish the UK for a new age. 

The convention should bring together groups to deliberate on the future of our country and propose a way forward that strengthens the UK and establishes a new political settlement for the whole of our country. 

After more than 300 years, it is time for a new Act of Union to safeguard our family of nations for generations to come.

This would mean a radical reshaping of our country along federal lines where every component part of the United Kingdom – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English regions – take more responsibility for what happens in their own communities, but where we still maintain the protection of being part of a greater whole as the UK. 

The United Kingdom provides the redistribution of wealth that defines our entire Labour movement, and it provides the protection for public finance in Scotland that comes from being part of something larger, something good, and something worth fighting for. 

Kezia Dugdale is the leader of the Scottish Labour party.