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10th Biennial Conference of the Gender and Education Association The Naturalisation of Everyday Sexism and Violence Relaunch of the Paulo Freire Institute-UK Boys and Girls Speak Out on Sexism and Sexual Harassment
10th Biennial Conference of the Gender and Education Association

10th Biennial Conference of the Gender and Education Association

Feminisms, Power and Pedagogy: 10th Biennial Conference of the Gender and Education Association University of Roehampton 24-26 June 2015 The tenth international biennial conference of the Gender and Education Association, Feminisms, Power and Pedagogy, will be hosted by the School of Education, the Centre for Educational Research in Equalities, Policy and Pedagogy (CEREPP) and the Paulo Freire Institute (PFI) [...]

The Naturalisation of Everyday Sexism and Violence

The Naturalisation of Everyday Sexism and Violence

By Nancy Lombard, Glasgow Caledonian University   The FRA study from the EU agency for Fundamental Rights released last Thursday did the usual rounds with the same old figures: 1 in three women have experienced abuse in their lifetime, 1 in 10 within the last 12 months.  We know this; we can recite these figures off by [...]

Relaunch of the Paulo Freire Institute-UK

Relaunch of the Paulo Freire Institute-UK

By Penny Jane Burke, University of Roehampton.   The Paulo Freire Institute-UK (PFI-UK) has now been relaunched at the University of Roehampton as an interdisciplinary research centre, with particular interest in feminist engagements with Freirean perspectives, methodologies and pedagogies. The PFI-UK is part of a large, international network of Paulo Freire Institutes worldwide, with its closest affiliation [...]

Boys and Girls Speak Out on Sexism and Sexual Harassment

Boys and Girls Speak Out on Sexism and Sexual Harassment

A report by Josie Austin and Helen Sivey of Cardiff University on the launch of Professor Emma Renold’s report on young people’s gender and sexual cultures for the National Assembly for Wales.   A dozen young people strode confidently past us into the Welsh Assembly Pierhead’s grand hall as we hovered around the imposing entrance. Like us, they [...]

Call for Papers: ‘Critical Diversities: Policies, Practices and Perspectives’, 10th -11th July 2014, Weeks Centre, LSBU

The ESRC Seminar Series ‘Critical Diversities @the Intersection’ (2012-
2014) has reflected a current wave of work within the social sciences,
humanities and arts, which offer new ways of conceptualising and
empirically researching ‘diversity’. Our 2-day conference hopes to build
on thoughts, presentations and debates, with keynotes including:

Prof. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw (UCLA) ‘Intersectionality, Research and

Prof. Davina Cooper (University of Kent) ‘Imagining the state otherwise:
Between utopia and critique”

Prof. Tracey Reynolds (Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research,
LSBU) ‘Borders, ‘diversity’ and intersections: A black feminist reflections
on the everyday lives of black women in Britain’

We welcome papers from across the career stage and from outside
academia. There will be prizes, book launches & panels. Please send
abstract to: CriticalDiversities2014@lsbu.ac.uk

Registration details to be posted soon.  Conference cost will be £25 for two days, places limited!

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Review of Melissa Benn’s ‘What should we tell our daughters? The pleasures and pressures of growing up female’

By Professor Miriam E. David

Benn, Melissa (2013) What should we tell our daughters? The pleasures and pressures of growing up female (London: John Murray) ISBN 978-1-84854-827-1 pp 343 £20

Three cheers for Melissa Benn! Members of the Gender and Education Association (GEA) should be delighted to have such an excellent advocate of feminist work on women and education in today’s complex and contradictory society. Whilst this is a journalistic account, it is an engagingly written and pleasurable read about the dilemmas of being a woman in today’s increasingly pressurized, pornified or sexualised and hyper-capitalist society. What Melissa sets out to do is to provide a map of where we, as women are today, and what we can do for the future. She specifically wants inter-generational conversations about how feminists have dealt with the past and how that can frame arguments about how to work for a feminist-friendly future. She is not starry-eyed about the gains that feminists have made over the last century or so and sets those against the increasing gulf between rich and poor women, and the rise of the austerity culture. She decides to interrogate second-wave feminists mainly about what they have done, and what evidence they can muster about the changing culture, politics and society, together with some choice male writers and academics, to set an agenda for ‘our daughters’.  She organizes her arguments into three parts, each of which has an aphorism for its concerns: the first she calls ‘uneasy beginnings’, the second ‘promises, promises’ and the third ‘rebellions and resources’ and she has an epilogue which is her manifesto for the future.

From the perspective of educators and parents, mothers especially, the first part of the book is where she presents what we know today about schooling and higher education linked together with the increasingly important feminist work on sexuality, sexual abuse and the pornification of our culture for young women. She provides a quick romp through recent work on how girls are doing better than boys in educational achievements at school and university but how this poses a huge problem given the pressures to be a particular kind of sexually attractive woman almost to the point of becoming invisible. Girls have to be  good but thin in a tick box culture. She contrasts this evidence with the important work on how the culture of laddism – male, macho, popular and raunchy – is increasingly pervading higher education. She questions what advice mothers can offer their daughters about sex in this kind of culture of objectification and the myth of perfection. Here she revisits the debates about puberty and adolescence in the context of single-sex versus co-educational schooling and the changing role of fathers in relation to their daughters. And she relies on a couple of key male writers here for her evidence, ignoring younger feminist academics such as Emma Renold and Jessica Ringrose, who have done such sterling work on children’s gender and sexual cultures based on interviews. She also doesn’t think to question the young people themselves for their views about growing up and living in a sexualized and pornified culture. This might have been the start of an interesting new conversation about relations between the generations and the futures of feminist studies.

The second part of the book considers what we know about women’s adult lives today in terms of work or employment, sex and love, and balancing work and life: this last is what she calls breakpoint. Again she romps through some interesting work on graduate employment and looks at highly achieving women as professionals and corporate feminists. She uses as part of her title of the first chapter in this part of the book the title of Sheryl Sandberg’s liberal feminist manifesto Lean In. Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook and has written about, as the sub-title puts it, women, work and the will to lead. Melissa takes this as the starting point of her critique and yet also uses it seriously as others have also done, about female professional achievements in the business world such as Alison Woolf in The XX Factor . Melissa does also look at the downsides and raises important questions, for example, about sexual harassment at work. And she goes on to provide a sober reappraisal of feminism as not being about the corporate world but women entering an unequal world of work. This is followed by a chapter about changing forms of sexual relations in an increasingly neo-liberal society. Here she also discusses changing feminist critiques of women’s understandings of sexuality and their bodies. And she moves swiftly into changing forms of work and motherhood, so that work-life balances are no longer the same as they were for older generations of feminists, so-called vintage feminists. Indeed, her Melissa argues that we have reached ‘breakpoint’.

The final part of the book considers what we now know about how to campaign for change and how to effect that change. She reviews feminist evidence about the uses of political campaigning and argues that there is a need for anger, but that it can easily be subverted particularly in an internet age. She provides a long discussion of how women’s anger is, and has been socially unacceptable, using the phrase that ‘anger means social and romantic isolation, imprisonment in the attic of social unacceptability’. (p.244) So she recognizes how difficult it is for women to learn how to be confident and powerful feminists. However, this part of the book, it seems to me, is the weakest section, as Melissa seems to have lost the will for collective and political campaigning and is more concerned with addressing the question of how individual women need to learn resilience and confidence in an increasingly individualized and competitive society. And yet she tries in her final chapter to think through the new politics of campaigning in an age of austerity and one where more women now have entered traditional democratic politics. She does not consider here more local or community-based activism but focuses more on singling out some key feminists in trade unions and the dilemmas of being a woman Labour politician. But she does conclude that ‘…our daughters may need help and support in order to learn to speak up and speak out for themselves; collectively, we need to move away from the traditional rhetorical, quasi-Oxford-Union/parliamentary form of public discussion and explore other ways of holding conversations’.

This is one of the final boxed statements (see below) and it does seem to me to indicate a weakness at the heart of the project. This book is not for an academic and certainly not for an academic feminist audience. This is also clear in the manifesto in the epilogue. This is a short and poetic piece of writing, using feminist polemicists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Toni Morrison, as well as addressing the question of ‘the exceptional woman who refuses exceptionality’, taking the term from Carol Gilligan. Here the book ends as an advice rather than campaigning manual to be read in a cosy armchair, perhaps with one eye on the ipad, internet, twitter or whatever.

Whilst this is a most important book, there are several problems with it. First and perhaps most importantly, whilst Melissa discusses anger as important to this feminist political project (in part 3) she tells us she shies away from anger and recognizes that this means that a broader feminist politics based on a thorough-going critique of a misogynistic or patriarchal culture is not what she intends. Hers is a liberal politics of cosy conversations. Second, and equally important is the selective use of evidence, without much explicit theory to explain it. Post-structural feminists might be surprised to note absolutely no references to Judith Butler! There is also no questioning of the younger generations of women, whether feminists or academics or both or none. Melissa is an excellent journalist and superb at summarizing a mass of evidence. I was totally in awe of her knowledge of a huge range of feminist books and texts, especially those that have come out in the 21st century, and mainly of the genre of market feminism, like the Fifty Shades of Feminism which was produced without any critical edge at all. But in the end this needs to be located in more critical theory not just represented as if it were now the truth. Third, and perhaps this is the key point – this book is for a large and wide market and it shows in presentation and style. The shocking pink cover print together with a naked girl covered with a towel is a most odd marketing device, as is the use of highlighted boxes of comment dotted across the text one of which I mentioned above. These are not in service to the bigger project of transforming the world for a feminist-friendly future.

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Gender and Education in the Asia Pacific: Possibilities and Provocations 9-11 December, 2014

Co-Convenors: Dr Emily Gray (RMIT University), Dr Anne Harris (Monash University) & Professor Julie McLeod (The University of Melbourne)


Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne

234 Queensberry Street, Parkville, Melbourne, Australia


The Gender and Education Association (GEA), in association with the University of Melbourne, Monash University, and RMIT University, is inviting abstracts for the 2014 Gender and Education Biennial Interim Conference


We would like to invite you to the Gender and Education Association Biennial Interim Conference, which is being held in the southern hemisphere for the first time. The conference focus reflects the complexities of Australia’s geopolitical location in the Asia-Pacific region, its history as colonised and coloniser, and its current position as part of both the ‘global north and the global south’.


The conference themes underscore the breadth of concerns and questions within the field of gender and education, the diversity of current challenges and emerging possibilities, and the pressing need to consider the relevance of context, place and history in understanding these matters.


We welcome abstract submissions for individual papers, symposia as well as ‘non traditional’ presentations, such as performance pieces, poetry and pecha kucha: http://www.pechakucha.org/.  Abstracts for single papers should be 250 words; and for symposia 250 words for each paper. For symposia, please include an overview rationale of up to 200 words.  Performance pieces and pecha kucha should also submit a description of the proposed presentation of 250 words.  All abstract submissions need to include the name of presenter/s, affiliation, title of presentation, a brief biographical statement of up to 50 words, and up to 5 keywords to describe the focus and themes of the presentation.


For more details including submission please visit the conference website: http://education.unimelb.edu.au/go/GEA2014#papers


e-mail enquiries or abstracts as Word documents to: gea2014@gmail.com


Deadline for submission: 30 April 2014

Confirmation of participation: by 16 June 2014

Call for Papers PDF

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Feminist Responses to the Robbins Report, 50 Years on: Where were and are the women?

Feminist Responses to the Robbins Report, 50 Years on: Where were and are the women?

By Miriam E. David, Institute of Education, London.


The Centre for Higher Education & Equity Research (CHEER) at the University of Sussex hosted yet another unique and seriously important event on Monday last, December 2nd 2013. This was feminist reflections on the Robbins report on higher education, which had been published 50 years ago, in October 1963(London: HMSO, Cmnd. 2154) (http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/robbins/)

Given that this report was seen by most policy-makers and political commentators as inaugurating the mass expansion of higher education there have been a number of celebratory anniversary events, for example at the London School of Economics (LSE), where Sir Lionel Robbins was then a professor of economics, and at the University of London’s Institute of Education, hosted by its Centre for Higher Education Studies (CHES). What was remarkable about the various other events was the lack of attention to questions of gender and equality in higher education.


This lacuna was more than amply filled by the event at CHEER on Monday. (All the papers and videos can be downloaded from the CHEER website http://www.sussex.ac.uk/education/cheer/).  As was announced before the event, the University of Sussex, founded in 1961 as one of several new universities to open up opportunities, was delighted to host the event. And arguably as a product of that important period of democratisation and expansion, CHEER wanted to revisit a core value of the Robbins Report , namely that university places should be available to anyone qualified to apply for them. Robbins also foregrounded gender: in the 1960s fewer women undertook higher education than men. So has the expansion of higher education encouraged democratisation and how has the gender agenda unfolded and unravelled in the last 50 years?

Professor Carole Leathwood, director of the Institute for Policy Studies in Education (IPSE) at London Metropolitan University provided a superb analysis of what she called ‘the genealogy of the woman student’. First of all, she invited us all to consider her approach, using a Foucauldian analysis to show how history meshed with current and contemporary issues. Secondly she had undertaken a documentary study of the text of the Robbins report and of a number of popular publications, most especially the Beaver, the student newspaper at LSE, as well as other national newspapers and feminist texts, such as the work of her namesake Carol Dyhouse. Carol, a social historian at Sussex, had published two feminist studies of women and universities, namely No Distinction of Sex? Women in British Universities, 1870-1939 (1995) and Students: A Gendered History (2005).

The essential point of both Carols is that women were considered entirely in relation to men as sexual and social beings. So both the Robbins report and the various newspaper clips that we were shown were about seeing young women students as ‘dolly birds’ or as sexy, and as available on ‘the marriage market’ rather than for the labour market. Interestingly, the Robbins report spent time considering where women students were and developing arguments about how to expand provision that would take account of women, but it never once considered women in the academic profession, as lecturers or researchers. And of course, it never considered the question of anything other than heterosexuality. On the other hand, there were discussions about pregnancy and motherhood and about adult learners, raised in the Robbins report. Indeed Carole Leathwood argued that the start of the British notion of lifelong learning might stem from this era, along with the mature woman student, although social class was barely mentioned.

Miriam David, Visiting Professor in CHEER, followed this discussion, by providing more detail about the position of female and male students at the time of Robbins and nowadays, contrasted with female academics, and the role of feminist activists in academia (based upon her forthcoming book Feminism, Gender & Universities: Politics, Passion and Pedagogies (Ashgate, 2014)). Her paper was entitled HE and SHE: Gender and Equality in Higher Education. She drew on David Willetts, the Minister for Universities and Science, in the coalition government, who had written a pamphlet for the 50th anniversary of the Robbins Report entitled Robbins Revisited: Bigger and Better Higher Education (and published by the Social Market Foundation, 2013). Willetts had had the figures re-analysed by government statisticians from the report. What it showed most clearly is a changing gender balance from female students being 25% of the then student body of less than a quarter of a million, to being about 55% of undergraduates today, when there are over ten times as many – well over 2 million in the UK. Willetts acknowledges the changes but he does not bother to comment on what is happening to staff in academia, tending to agree with the old-fashioned views expressed in the Robbins report about the marital and power relations between men and women. Whilst these changing student figures mirror international studies, such as UNESCO’s Atlas of Gender Equality in Education (March 2012) (see previous blog on the GEA website), in Europe and the USA, all also contend that women tend to disappear the more they are educated, such as through doing a doctorate. She Figures, statistics from the European Union, makes this point very strongly. Perhaps the point is made most strongly though in the UK through two contrasting reports of the now independent Equality Challenge Unit. It publishes annual statistics on staff and students in higher education across the UK in separate volumes. What is most alarming is that gender inequality is rampant amongst staff in UK universities, with 80% of professors being white men, whilst gender equality is so normative amongst students, as no longer worthy of comment. So what can be done to create a more feminist-friendly future in universities?

The afternoon session of the seminar was devoted to Professors Valerie Hey and Louise Morley both of CHEER, acting as Pollyanna and Cassandra respectively and considering how to change the situation and imagine the university of the future, and especially in 50 years’ time, and the position of feminism within it. These discussions had been prefigured in an ESRC seminar series, http://www.sussex.ac.uk/cheer/esrcseminars.

 We were all then invited to consider various scenarios in small groups, chaired and led by Rebecca Webb, a doctoral researcher in CHEER and affiliated to the Centre for Teaching and Learning Research in Sussex. This was a most lively and invigorating session, in which we began to consider an alternative to austerity, to a university in which critical and creative thinking once again had centre stage, and where ethical values, not economic value, as Louise Morley put it so passionately, was pre-eminent.  We all left the seminar feeling exhausted but hopeful: CHEER had created an inclusive and open space for feminist debate and discussion to thrive, whilst the immediate outside context remained severely constricting and constraining by an intransigent and intellectually vacuous government. The two key ministers for education – David Willetts for Higher Education and Michael Gove for Schools – vie with each other for presenting the stern and firm smack of government or ‘back to the future’, where ‘boys will be boys’ and girls don’t exist except as bystanders.

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How Miley Brought Feminism Back

How Miley Brought Feminism Back

By Shauna Pomerantz, Brock University, St. Catharines, ON.  

Now that the dust has settled on one of the most publicized popular culture controversies in recent history, it is time to reflect on what Miley Cyrus has done for feminism. Yes, I said feminism. The debates surrounding Miley’s infamous Video Music Award (VMA) performance and her subsequent Wrecking Ball video have left me feeling surprisingly optimistic about the future of feminism. And for this reason alone, I am grateful to the twenty-one-year-old for her provocative style, sound, and sexual display. More than any other female pop star—more than Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Pink, and even Madonna—Miley brought feminism to the public fore. Here’s why: by controversially performing young, white, pop star femininity, she ignited a conversation that still has people discussing what it means to be a young woman in the 21st century. And perhaps most surprisingly, this conversation has been multifaceted and intellectually engaged. I have been riveted by the various strands of these arguments, from aging pop stars to punk bloggers, media pundits to feminist academics, and young girl fans to male hipsters—all of whom have something interesting to say about not just Miley’s performance of femininity, but also what power can or might mean for girls and women at this time and place in history.

Never before has there been so much talk, text, and tweeting about feminist issues: gender performativity, empowerment versus oppression, misogyny in the music industry, sexual agency, slut shaming, racism and racialization, and why women receive so much criticism in popular culture when men receive almost none. What matters most in these debates is not who has the definitive perspective—the piece that decides if Miley is “good” or “bad” once and for all—but rather the sheer volume of discussion about young womanhood, sexuality, and power. Acting as a lightening rod, Miley provided people with an outlet for expressing feminist views about things that truly matter in our global capitalist, socially networked, celebrity obsessed culture. And each opinion continues to broaden previous statements—constantly re-shaping the discourse, but thankfully never quite nailing it down.

Take, for example, Sinead O’Conner’s powerfully worded “maternal” letter to Miley, suggesting that the music industry is pimping her out. She writes to Miley:

“The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth, and cleverly make you think it’s what YOU wanted …”

This intense warning of exploitation then ignited discussion on a number important feminist questions: What does it mean to be oppressed or empowered in the music industry? What about agency and sexuality? Who is in control? Is sexual empowerment “real” power? Under global capitalism, do human beings even count? In response to Sinead’s doom and gloom came a treatise on individualism and freedom of expression from Amanda Palmer. She writes to Sinead,

“Miley is, from what I can gather, in charge of her own show. She’s writing the plot and signing the checks, and although I think it’s tempting to imagine her in the boardroom of label assholes and management, I don’t think any of them masterminded her current plan to be a raging, naked, twerking sexpot. I think that’s All Miley All The Way.”

Then, in response to these two polemic pieces came Lisa Wade’s more academic effort to show how both Sinead and Amanda were equal parts right and wrong.

“On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system.”

And most recently, Laurie Penny made the exquisitely elegant case that we have turned Miley into a gruesome symbol for all girls, doing grave violence to the multitudes of girls out there who live brave and fabulous lives.

“In the real world, girls are not all the same. Attempting to make any one woman stand in for all women everywhere is demeaning to every woman anywhere. It tells us that we are all alike, that for all society’s fascination with our feelings and fragility we are considered of a kind, replaceable. We’re all the same, and we’re all supposed to have the same problems. And that’s the problem.”

And the conversation just keeps on exploding. So suddenly, it does not matter to me whether Miley has done something “right” or “wrong”. I no longer care if she is “good” or “bad” for girls. All that matters is that for this glorious period in time, it seems as though the entire western world is talking about feminism. And the feminism under discussion is never just one kind, but always multiple and diverse. It is intersectional (at times focusing on race, gender, class, and sexuality); it is academic (at times focusing on identity, power, and agency); it is everyday (at times focusing on raw emotion and opinion); it is everyone (and anyone with a keyboard and an Internet connection); and it is everywhere (emerging at work and parties between people of all ages and cultures).

No matter what you may think of Miley, her videos, or her media image, there is no denying that she has done something truly important for feminism. She made it a household word, a water cooler topic. She incited an impassioned and textured conversation about feminism; she proved that feminism is still relevant and necessary; and she exemplified the powerful and contradictory possibilities both young womanhood and feminism hold. So thank you for bringing feminism back, Miley. Maybe it never really left, but it has certainly been driven underground in the popular realm for quite some time. Denied, faded, and deemed a “dirty” word, thank you for helping to illuminate feminism in the floodlights of public discourse.

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Women of the World: International Day of the Girl

Women of the World: International Day of the Girl

By Hannah Iqbal, Cardiff University.  

On Friday 11th October, at 7.30am, 200 women and girls gathered in the foyer of the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre. Why were these women and girls were taking time out of their schools, work and daily routines to gather together so early on a cold October morning?

Friday 11th marked the second International Day of the Girl, a day introduced by the UN to highlight the experiences of girls across the world and the multiple barriers to equality they face. This gathering at the Southbank Centre was part of an international day of events focusing on girls’ rights globally, and more specifically, their right to education.

Currently there are 66 million girls worldwide who are prevented from receiving an education. The threat of sexual violence, stigma and the experience of forced marriage are all common barriers that keep girls from attending school. Recent evidence suggests that 10 million girls under 18 marry each year, with some as young as 8 years old. In developing countries, 1 in 3 marries before they are 18.  Alongside this, 150 million girls under 18 have experienced rape or sexual violence. In a school setting, this can be from other pupils or teachers.

The event at the Southbank Centre aimed to draw attention to these global issues whilst also providing a platform for young girls from across the UK to discuss their fears and aspirations. Girls from between 11-18 were matched at random with women from the media, police, academia, music, arts and politics. Each girl had three 15-minute slots with some of these women, creating space to discuss any challenges they were facing.

The speed mentoring took place in the London Eye. I was placed in a capsule with 7 girls aged 10-11 and amongst others, a photographer, BBC presenter, graphic designers and a leadership coach. After initial greetings, we set off the first mentoring session. Each of the girls I spoke to expressed fears about going to secondary school in the next year, with one girl bursting into tears as she began to articulate this. Through the next hour, it was a real privilege to chat to each of these young women and hopefully by the end of the time, ensure they were feeling more encouraged and positive about the challenges they were facing.

Following these mentoring sessions, we watched a performance from an all-female jazz band and some interviews with prominent figures in literature and performing arts industries. The mentors then left and the girls took part in an afternoon of workshops tackling issues such as body image.  The Women of the World Festival at the Southbank Centre provides a unique and important range of events to celebrate women’s achievements and discuss the obstacles they face across the world. It is one of the most innovative, engaging and inspiring set of events I have ever taken part in and I highly recommend that more of us in academia get involved with it.

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Reporting Feminist Potential at ‘The Rebirth of Feminism’ conference (Middlesex University, 30th October 2013 #mdxfeminism)

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.

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GEA Executive Member Kate Reynolds appointed as a Trustee for the NUT


Dr Kate Reynolds, an Executive Member of the Gender and Education Association has been appointed as a Trustee for the National Union of Students.

The role includes ensuring the NUS acts in accordance with good corporate governance.

Kate is Chair of the HR committee and is taking a lead role on equality and diversity issues.

Kate said ‘I’m delighted to be a Trustee for the NUS.  I’m particularly pleased to be a Trustee during the presidency of Toni Pearce, the first NUS president from an FE college”.


nus logo (blk)
nus logo (blk)

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Picturing Change: The Power of Visibility

Picturing Change: The Power of Visibility


“Write this down.”

When I first began participant observation in India’s anganwadis –free, government run early childhood care and education centers that form the backbone of India’s Integrated Child Development Services scheme (ICDS) – this was a common refrain.  That, and, “Put this in your book,” “Make sure you tell people,” and, “You’re taking this to Delhi, right?”

These were the words of anganwadi workers, the all-female workforce recruited from India’s poorest communities to run angnawadis. Workers are often low caste and low income; many are the primary breadwinners in their extended families. They are also some of the most skilled advocates I have ever met, lobbying local councilors for space and resources, navigating families past obstinate bureaucrats and mountains of paperwork, and crusading for girls’ education by breaking up early marriages, enrolling daughters in school, and implementing schemes designed to counteract female infanticide.

And yet, the workers I observed were overwhelmed with invisibility. No one knows what we do, they told me.  No one asks our opinion. No one respects us. The extent of the problem became apparent in Bangalore, my primary research site, when workers began calling each other to say, “Mathangi madam is here. She’s writing a book. Shall I send her to you?”

Feminist scholar Mohanty (2003) argues that the invisibility of women’s work – and, in particular, the work of low-income women of color – is a byproduct of patriarchy, both because it is the result of devaluing all that is female and because invisibility allows for the perpetuation of financial male-domination.  Women’s work (defined as both the work women do and work associated with women such as cooking, cleaning, and child care) is positioned as nothing more than the daily tasks required for men to do the “real” work of capitalism.  It is easy to justify unpaid labor if you insist that it does not exist.

For anganwadi workers, invisibility is institutionalized.  The Indian government labels the women “voluntary” and pays them “honorariums” even though they work seven hours a day, five days a week, plus a half day on Saturday.  Even when the media covers issues relevant to ICDS, anganwadi workers are almost never mentioned; instead, articles invoke their colleagues (like health workers), superiors (like Ministers) or un-appointed spokespeople (like non-elected union leaders). Yet, I have not to meet anyone in India who is more intimately familiar with the realities of child poverty, or better equipped to make recommendations about its alleviation. But you cannot ask the opinions of those you cannot see.

Dismantling this invisibility, Mohanty (2003) argues, means dismantling patriarchy. She writes,

Making Third World women workers visible in this gender, race, class formation…leads to thinking about the possibilities of emancipatory action on the basis of the reconceptualization of Third World women as agents rather than victims.” (p. 143)

It was this call to action that inspired me to work with professional photographer Greeshma Patel to develop Picturing Change, an attempt to literally render anganwadi workers’ work visible. This July, using a grant from the Fulbright Foundation and funds crowdsourced on Indiegogo, Greeshma and I purchased digital cameras and began training five anganwadi workers – Geetha, Sujatha, Sumitra, Varalakshmi, and Yashoda – in photography. In the past three months, the women have produced and curated an exhibit that will be on display at Thalam gallery in Bangalore from September 28 – October 12.

Already, there have been sparks of the reconceptualization Mohanty (2003) precits. Visitors to Picturing Change’s Facebook page tell us the photos have disproved their preconceived notions that government workers are lazy, submissive, and corrupt. Senior ICDS officials who viewed the photos said they did not realize the range of activities anganwadi workers implemented in their centers, or the creativity with which they approached their jobs. A local NGO that is influential in national early childhood policy asked if the workers could speak at a community forum about reforming ICDS. Such shifts reposition women’s work as skilled, as well as important, and women workers as experts in their fields.

The participants say the project has brought them attention and respect, giving them confidence in themselves and pride in their work. At least two are planning to write personal testimonials for local presses, and all of them are interested in producing a book after the exhibit ends.

Dyrness (2008) writes that “we cannot hope to transform social structures without first transforming ourselves,” supporting feminist scholars who have argued that personal healing is a necessary first step to radicalization. While I do not dispute that transformation is a prerequisite to change, I am reminded of Chowdhury’s (2011) well founded claim that too often, NGOs, academics, and activists who settle for individual empowerment do not do enough to fight for structural change. For me, Picturing Change has been transformational, in that it has taught me the power of images to remake identities narrowly and falsely hewn by intersecting oppressions. Most importantly, it has taught me the importance of working beside women in solidarity, rather than for women in a separate, elitist space.

Last week, I was at Varalakshmi’s anganwadi on a day when she had invited mothers to come have their children weighed to assess whether or not they were malnourished. She balanced a camera in one hand, using the other to record weights, hold babies, and steady hanging scales.

When I asked if she wanted help, she said, “No madam, I’ll do it myself.”

So I sat, and I listened, and I watched, in solidarity, as, slowly and surely, Varalakshmi’s invisibility faded away.


Written by Dr. Mathangi Subramanian

Picturing Change will be on view in Thalam Gallery in Bangalore from September 28 – October 12. You can also follow our progress on www.facebook.com/PicturingChange.

Dr. Mathangi Subramanian is a Banglore-based writer, educator, and Fulbright Scholar.  Her writing has appeared in academic and popular publications ranging from Gender and Education to The Hindu Sunday Magazine to the seal press anthology Click!: When We Knew We Were Feminists. She is the co-editor of Us Education in a World of Migration: Implications for Policy and Practice, which is forthcoming from Routledge. Her first single authored book, Bullying: The Ultimate Teen Guide, will be published by Scarecrow Press in 2014. She can be reached at ms2763@columbia.edu.

Thanks to Greeshma Patel for allowing us to use this photo

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Because feminism DOES belong in schools

Because feminism DOES belong in schools

Last month the Guardian newspaper featured an article by 17 year old Jinan Younis about the sexist abuse she and her peers received after setting up a feminist society in her school.  Jinan’s story demonstrates the importance of schools as sites where feminist activism can grow and where girls and young women can safely and creatively think about and challenge sexism and gender inequality. Yet her story also, sadly, demonstrates that this space is under threat.  One of the many responses to Jinan’s brave story was the creation of a fantastic project called ‘Feminism Belongs: a collection of photo messages about why schools need to take gender empowerment seriously. GEA invited Jinan and Tanya O’Carroll (who, along with Jinan, helped create the ‘Feminism Belongs’ project) to write a guest blog about their experiences.  We hope readers enjoy their post, and are inspired to post their own photo messages!

Jinan Younis:

I am Jinan Younis and I recently wrote an article about my experiences of setting up a feminist society at my school.

I felt that my situation of girls being verbally abused, humiliated and intimidated for speaking out against sexism highlighted a very serious problem that was common in many schools like my own: there is no feminist education. There is no system or policy in place that teaches boys and girls about fundamental issues such as consent and rape, gender inequality, and body image. There is ignorance and aggression surrounding feminism and serious issues facing women. There is a huge reluctance from boys to consider issues that face women as ‘real’ issues. I was recently told that feminism is a ‘minor issue’, and one boy told me that he agreed that sexism still exists, before asking me not to tell his friends about our conversation. This apathy and hatred of feminism among young boys needs to be addressed.

As I went to an all-girls school, I have witnessed the sorts of traumas that teen girls face. There is a huge lack of self worth and self confidence among girls. I’ve had friends who were in emotionally and physically abusive relationships, and I can’t even begin to describe the pressures that face young girls concerning body image. Too many have eating disorders; too many turn that packet of crisps around to inspect the calories. Too many find their self confidence resting on whether the boy walking past checks them out. Too few are happy in their own bodies. I think schools should take an active role in creating a space where these issues are openly discussed and are dealt with. Schools should support girls in their fight against sexism, and should take a leading role in ensuring gender equality, healthy body image, and instilling much needed self worth among young girls.

The pledge ‘Schools against sexism’ aims to provide schools with a framework which will help them tackle sexism in their institutions. It states clearly the areas that need to be addressed, such as body image, respect and equality, and it allows the schools to have contact with large organisations such as End Violence Against Women. In order to gather support for this pledge, we have also set up a tumblr campaign ‘Feminism belongs in Education’. In this, people hold up a board with the words ‘Feminism belongs in schools because…’ with their own personal response. This campaign aims to acquire support from students and teachers, along with the general public, so that head teachers realise the necessity of implementing a policy of gender equality in their schools.

I believe that the only way that we can change the deep rooted sexism that is still such a huge part of our society is through education. Schools have the power to change the sexist attitudes of young boys, to encourage boys and girls to challenge gender stereotypes, to offer support to young girls and boys in the face of teenage pressures, and to instate a sense of self worth, self respect and mutual respect amongst teens. I think schools are currently leaving out a vital part of education for young girls and boys. Gender, rape, sexual consent, unhealthy body image, lack of respect and sexual harassment are all issues that are especially common among teens. I believe that schools have the power to change this.

Tanya O’Carroll:

Two weeks ago I read an article that touched me deeply. A young woman, Jinan Younis, had written an article in the Guardian explaining what happened when she set up a Feminist Society in her all girls school. Along with the other girls in the society Jinan became the victim of extraordinary online abuse and intimidation from boys in her wider social circle – so much so that the school asked the society to cease its feminist activities, citing concerns for the girls’ safety.

Did I find the boys’ attitudes to Jinan and her peers particularly surprising? Not really. I myself was at school less than a decade ago and the description of the boys’ behaviour was familiar. I think we got used to the idea that as teenagers we should ‘rise above’ constant sexual jokes and harassment, that the boys were just being boys, that they would grow out of it, and that it was harmless. The main difference is that none of us at school would have thought to openly call ourselves feminists. Should we have, I am convinced that, like Jinan, we would have come up against a much nastier and aggressive form of abuse.

However, while the boys behaviour in Jinan’s article didn’t surprise me, the school’s did. Actually I wouldn’t call it surprise. What I felt was extreme anger and sadness. Jinan’s words were deeply troubling:

We, a group of 16-, 17- and 18-year-old girls, have made ourselves vulnerable by talking about our experiences of sexual and gender oppression only to elicit the wrath of our male peer group…Without the support from our school, girls who had participated in the campaign were isolated, facing a great deal of verbal abuse with the full knowledge that there would be no repercussions for the perpetrators.

I felt an overwhelming urgency to let Jinan and the other girls know that they were not alone;  that there were many of us who agreed with her and who were living with the consequences of sexism going unchecked. For while I personally didn’t suffer the worst pressures of my gender at school they crept up on me. At Cambridge University I encountered a different breed of misogyny, where institutions such as the Pitt Club still exist and where old boy’s mentality dictates so many of the social rules.

I also came to notice it as I got older, when I discovered my six year old sister’s preoccupation and fascination with body image. Where I had previously ignored sexism in advertising and the media I began to notice it everywhere and saw the damage that it was doing to another generation of boys and girls.

I wanted Jinan’s school to know that they had failed her and so many of us when they did not promote and encourage their student’s feminist work. Many of us felt the same. I reached out to a few friends on Facebook and a group of us grew, as people added people, who added more people. We soon found ourselves with an active and passionate circle, including teachers and campaigners, community artists and social workers who wanted to send schools a message the Feminism is desperately needed in education.

We reached out to Jinan and worked with her to set-up the Feminism Belongs project, a collection of photo messages about why our education institutions need to take gender empowerment seriously. We were amazed at the rapid response. By the end of the week we had tons of entries, some coming from far away, including Estonia and Mexico. It seemed that both Jinan, and our message that Feminism Belongs, had touched a nerve.

It is obvious that gender oppression and sexism still pervade our society and it is hard to know where to begin to unpick them. One thing I am certain of is that feminist education is critical for young girls and boys growing up today. Not to teach gender divides but to open up conversations and safe spaces for both sexes to honestly explore the multiplicity of gender pressures that affect them. The struggle for gender equality is far from over and we will not have put it to rest until all of us – men and women, boys and girls – are proud to call ourselves feminists and understand the powerful idea of equality, choice and dignity that the word stands for.



Inspired? Want to get involved? Here’s how:

  • Take your own photos and add  them to the Feminism Belongs website: http://feminismbelongs.tumblr.com/  
  • Sign and promote the UK Feminista ‘Schools Against Sexism’ pledge – and get your school or your child’s school to sign up to: http://ukfeminista.org.uk/take-action/generation-f/schools-against-sexism-pledge/
  • Why not write a guest blog for GEA and tell us about your own experiences of setting up, running or being part of a Feminist Society in school, college or university; or tell us why you think feminism belongs in schools and how we can make sure that it stays that way.  Contact Kim Allen if you’re interested in writing for us (k.allen@mmu.ac.uk)


*These images come from the Feminism Belongs site. Thank you to Tanya and Jinan for allowing us to use these here.

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Gender and Education Association

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October 2014