In February this year Education Secretary Damian Hinds announced that there will be compulsory lessons in Relationships Education for primary-aged children and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) for secondary students from 2020. LGBT issues will be part of this, as will honour marriages, dangers of online abuse, FGM and domestic violence. In the light of this surely it is surely both relevant and appropriate to introduce feminism and the history of women’s equality into the curriculum? For without understanding that until relatively recently women here had few rights and did not enjoy the same status as men (and still do not in many parts of the world), it is impossible to explain the ongoing discrimination and abuse that continues today. And why we still have inequality.
Women’s lives in the West have changed enormously over the past hundred years, and despite the marking of women’s suffrage last year, there are many men and women who do not appreciate that their current freedoms have been hard won by earlier feminists. Domestic violence, rape, child abuse, sex trafficking, pornography all show that women are still too often not treated with respect as human beings.
I believe that all schools should teach the history of women’s liberation so far – perhaps going back as far as Mary Wollenstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Women in 1792. This would help provide some context and understanding for both boys and girls and their relations today. What is the point in teaching them about sex and relationships without an understanding that it was not until the feminist movement of the mid-sixties plus the advent of the contraceptive pill that enabled women to have sexual relations outside marriage without risking pregnancy or being rejected by society. We should set down when women first got the vote in different countries round the world (e.g.Switzerland 1973); and here in the UK when women were able to own property for the first time (Married Women’s Property Act 1882); when they were allowed to be educated and go to university for the first time and when each of the professions finally allowed them entry. Then when and why the Equal Pay Act and Sex Discrimination were passed in 1975, before which it was legal to pay women half of what men earned for the same work. That rape within marriage was legal until 1991.
Women’s freedoms today have been hard fought for. In a comment during the Treasury Select Committee on Women in the City in 2009, one of the two women members, Sally Keeble commented that not one aspect of women’s equality had ever come about without a law being passed. That means that there has been ongoing resistance from men and this must also be addressed.
The course could detail how women worked in men’s jobs in the First World War and what happened afterwards and then again in the Second World War. This would include the stories of women whose lives and achievements have been neglected, forgotten, or worse, written out of history. There is so much talk of role models in our work in diversity and inclusion. But we have many, many women role models, we just don’t know about them.
Issues like sexual harassment and the #Metoo phenomenum make sense when seen in the light of women’s history. None of this is new and there have been many women campaigning for an end to sexual harassment over the years. Learning that there are many cultures in the world in which women still do not have basic human rights is important for our young people to know. The challenge is to teach and discuss this without alienating or blaming boys. It is about social progress and I want girls and young women to be proud of their history and past, how far we have come and yes to know that there is so much more to be done. Feminism is the reason that women and girls in the West have the lives they have today and we should acknowledge that, teach it and celebrate it.