By Yvette Taylor, GEA Member
I was excited to be invited to speak at ‘The Rebirth of Feminism’ conference, with the title posing potential… and, perhaps, problems or even pain. A ‘rebirth’ is loaded with prospects and (re)production, as enduring feminist labour. This is messy and, while something (and someone) ‘arrives’, the potential, problems and pain arguably carries on (see ‘feminist failures’).
Intrigued, I wondered what (and who) was being re-birthed, pondering on the newness implied, and the feminist lines and lives continued, renewed or rejected. Feminism(s) have long articulated and circulated the language of ‘family’, of ‘sisterhood’, and generational ‘waves’, suggestive of a generational inheritance and ‘passing on’; these notions can veer between a ‘never had it so good’ to a ‘failing the future’ sentiment. As the recent Gender and Education Association 2013 conference variously considered, I wondered ‘who gets to inherit and what is accumulated and lost in renewing feminism?’
I considered these questions as I searched for an object’ to bring to the conference, as instructed by the organisers. The chosen object was intended to foster discussion, deliberately deviating from a stand-and-speak format of knowing-feminist speaker versus feminist-in-training audience. Conscious of these knowledge exchanges, often bound up with generational positions, I chose to speak about my own retrieved school report cards, marking my own educational trajectory. Which I wouldn’t easily describe – or feel – as an ‘arrival’ (see here).
Report cards are something we’ve all likely experienced (arguably continued and self-audited as our own academic CVs). We’ve all been evaluated, and as educators, we all evaluate, celebrating potential and lamenting failure. When the question of our own academic biographies intersects with questions of women’s entry into the world of employment and education more generally, questions of potential can quickly become problematic – even recast as feminist failure. As Angela McRobbie highlights in the Aftermath of Feminism, women’s entry into the workforce, as beneficiaries of and achievers in education, has become a sign of ‘arrival’, that she has found her place in a (post)feminist world. But she can also go ‘too far’ and (some) women’s achievement has also been seen as a cause and symptom of a male-underachievement and ‘crisis of masculinity’ (even with his pay differential).
In presenting, I hoped to remind everyone of this story beyond me, even as I placed my report cards on the floor, in the group circle; as we report on feminist potential (and failure) we must, of course, move beyond our own stories. But here is mine: I rediscovered my school report cards, held as valued and treasured objects, even though what they conveyed on the pages was frequently a ‘failure’ rather than a ‘success’. In reading these educational (mis)representations of me, my initial curiosity moved to an anger and even dismay as I realized the emotional (and material) pull these stories still had for me as an adult.
I am deeply skeptical of the story of meritocratic promise, of working really hard (and, romantically, ‘against all the odds’) and so I certainly didn’t want to convey a problematic beginning, transformed by an educational ‘becoming’. Instead, I wanted to query these official stories, which seem profoundly marked by classed and gendered terms and anticipated trajectories. My own reports are littered with ‘lapses into idle chatter’, of being ‘easily distracted’ and rather ‘slap dash’ in approach: the phrase ‘continual underachievement’ is, for one subject, underlined and in my physical education report a rather harsh judgment is made that I have, in fact, ‘not mastered the basic skills’ (of badminton).
So, when the ‘girl with potential’ becomes celebrated, anticipated and lamented, as a sign of feminist future/failure, we need to be attentive to the re-birthing and recirculation of enduring inequalities, so as to report feminist potential for everyone.