As part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, we teamed up with the Fawcett Society to discuss the history of the suffrage movement and the future of gender equality with a class of Year 9 students. Here’s how it went…
I like to think of myself as a reasonably brave person. Public speaking shreds my nerves, but experience has taught me I can do it. I’ve met a handful of celebrities whose work I adore (Ellen DeGeneres, Kim Cattrall, Colin Firth) and somehow managed not to throw up on their shoes. I’ve told someone that I loved them without knowing if they would say it back, and I didn’t spontaneously combust. In each of these scary situations, I’ve relied on a basic level of confidence: on the knowledge that, even if it all goes horribly wrong, I’ll be OK.
But as I arrange chairs into a semi-circle in a secondary school classroom in south London, I’m not feeling particularly brave or confident. Stylist’s Visible Women campaign aims to teach future generations about inspiring women from the past and present day, and as part of that pledge my colleague Megan and I have come to Harris City Academy in Crystal Palace, to co-run a workshop about the history of the suffrage movement with a group of Year 9 students. And to say that I’m tense is… an understatement.
Because here’s the thing: I know what Year 9s are like. I know because I was one in 2006, which doesn’t seem like a million years ago to me (although it probably does to today’s teenagers). And speaking from experience, Year 9s are bright, funny and utterly, utterly ruthless. At 13 and 14, you’re old enough to think you’re no longer a child, while being young enough to see almost all legal adults as embarrassing, irrelevant losers. You are the very definition of a hostile audience.
Personally, I’ve never been so much of a little s**t as I was when I was 14. I sneered at some teachers, openly mocked others and ignored the rest – and I was considered one of the good ones, purely because I didn’t throw stuff at the whiteboard. So now that I’m on the other side of the pupil-educator divide, I feel a bit nauseous. How can I assume that these students will take us seriously, when my friends and I regularly got thrown out of French aged 14 for sitting at the back and making owl noises?
Stylist has teamed up with the Fawcett Society for today’s workshop, as part of the feminist charity’s Future Fawcett outreach programme. Launched in schools earlier this year, Future Fawcett sessions are a way of educating the next generation about the importance of the suffrage movement – particularly the legacy of Millicent Fawcett, the suffragist (and Fawcett Society namesake) whose statue was unveiled in Parliament Square in April.
Anyone can volunteer to participate in Future Fawcett workshops, which are also designed to get young people thinking and talking about how they can tackle gender inequality and discrimination in their own lives. And today, those volunteers are us.
“I personally love going into Year 9 groups, even though it can be very intimidating due to their immense energy – which can sometimes lead to them being slightly rowdy,” says Doris Amankwaah, Future Fawcett’s brilliant outreach worker.
“In my experience, I find that 13- and 14-year-olds are at a crossroads. They’re beginning to think about their future goals and plans, and they’re also moving into a slightly older space within the school hierarchy, so they see this as a time to establish ‘who they are’.
“But that’s why’s is so enjoyable working with this age group, as they’re usually open to discussing, analysing and sharing their thoughts.”
As the students trickle into the classroom, they look variously intrigued, suspicious and totally disinterested. Of course, none of them want to sit in the front row; they all gravitate towards the back of the room, where they stare out of the window, chat to one another or gaze ambivalently in our direction.
Amankwaah kicks off the session with a presentation about the suffragists, emphasising that Millicent Fawcett was just 19 when she began campaigning for women’s right to vote – despite being too young to so much as sign a petition herself.
When we move on to discussing the rights that women were denied in the 19th and early 20th centuries, many of the students – especially the girls – react with outrage. The revelation that until 1923, women could only divorce their husbands if they could prove that they had been violent or extraordinarily cruel – and that female divorcees automatically lost custody of any children – prompts snarls and tuts of indignation.
“Who among you wants to go to uni?” Amankwaah asks. About two-thirds of the students put up their hands. “Who here wants to earn lots of money?” Virtually every hand in the room waves in the air.
“Well,” Amankwaah says, “if you were a woman back in Millicent Fawcett’s day, you wouldn’t be able to go to university. And even if you were rich, all of your money and your property would be transferred to your husband as soon as you got married.” Around the room, the girls are practically hissing.
Next, the conversation moves on to how gender inequality still manifests today. Not everyone is convinced that girls have a rawer deal than boys in 2018: “Why are we talking about girls’ problems when they’re not the ones getting stabbed?” one girl asks, scathingly.
It’s a tough question, but it prompts a discussion about how boys also face pressure to behave in narrowly-defined ways because of their gender. One boy observes that young men are often told not to cry or show their emotions, because that’s seen as “acting like a little girl”. “Exactly!” Amankwaah exclaims. “It’s not just girls who have to deal with gender stereotypes.”
Not everyone is engaged in the subject of gender equality from the jump. At one point, I spot two female students exchanging acerbic eye-rolls, and feel my heart wither a little in my chest (nobody does contempt like a 14-year-old girl). Later on, I accidentally knock a box of scissors onto the floor, prompting a chorus of mocking “oohs” that makes me wish a cartoon-style anvil would fall from the sky and crush me on the spot.
But there are also moments that feel like genuine breakthroughs. Many of the students are especially interested when we introduce the concept of intersectionality, and several girls share stories about sexism they’ve encountered in their own lives – from parents who have one set of rules for them and another for their brothers, to boys who turn nasty when rejected romantically.
When we ask who’s familiar with the term ‘gender pay gap’, every hand in the room shoots up. Incredibly, one girl can cite the exact mean average pay gap – 13.7% – off the top of her head, something I’m not sure many adults could do so confidently.
If this was a heartwarming TV movie, we’d finish off the session with each of the students rising to their feet and emotionally pledging to do their bit to end gender inequality. But it isn’t. It’s real life, and while most of the pupils are happy to describe themselves as feminists by the end of the workshop, some are still hesitant. A couple of the boys feel leery about the F-word – though they’re quick to state that they “obviously” agree with the concept of gender equality – and one girl states firmly that she knows she isn’t a feminist, because she wants to be a stay-at-home mum when she’s older.
“I hear you,” Amankwaah says. “And you absolutely have the right to choose that for your life – but the key word is that being a stay-at-home mum is your choice.” Once upon a time, she explains, many women wouldn’t have been able to choose between going out to work, staying at home to raise children, or balancing a combination of the two. Being a housewife and mother would have been the only path open to them.
“Feminism isn’t about saying you can’t be a stay-at-home mum if that’s what you want to do,” Amankwaah continues. “It’s about saying that you should be able to decide what you want to do – and your gender shouldn’t define your life path.” As the students file out of the classroom, I feel hopeful that that message might sink in.
To find out more about Future Fawcett and volunteer to educate young people about their suffrage history, visit fawcettsociety.org.uk/future-fawcett