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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?

A girl runs down an aisle of toys for girls. Photo: Getty
Gendered toys and classroom activities introduce children to stereotypes early. Photo: Getty

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?