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Ideas

the Miss G__ Project making women’s studies a back-to-school basic

by Sarah Ghabrial | August 25, 2005

The Miss G___ Project for Equity in Education is a growing group of people working to get women’s studies into Ontario high schools. Yet only one of the four founding members of Miss G___ has ever taken a women’s studies course, and that was a first-year university survey.

So, what’s the big deal about women’s studies in high school when three out of four of us still haven't studied it? What are we fighting for, and why?

When we each entered university in the last few years, somewhere in the midst of the sudden and occasionally unnerving new ideas we encountered, we discovered something refreshing and unexpected: feminism – that much maligned and misunderstood exploration of the workings of gender upon power, and vice versa. This was the first time some of us had encountered the concept; for others, it was the first time feminism was discussed in an academic setting.

Until that point, the closest thing we had to feminist critique or gender analysis was a hazy understanding of “the difference between men and women” gleaned mainly from Oprah and morning radio. Then came an “Ah-ha” moment (not to be confused with Oprah’s “Ah-ha” moment) when we found ourselves suddenly equipped with the knowledge and language to express in a meaningful way those things we always knew, but could never put into words. It was a liberating and empowering discovery, this new way of understanding the world.

We found other students who all felt the same way. All of us asked the same questions:

Why has this been kept from us until now?
Where was this knowledge in high school, when we could have really benefited from it?

Thus began the project, which we named after Miss G___, another young woman who had gotten a bad deal from her education. In 1873, Miss G___ was the subject of a study by Harvard Medical School’s Dr. Edward H. Clarke, entitled “Sex in Education: or, A fair chance for the girls!” (Now doesn't that sound exciting?) He told the story of a certain “Miss G___” – a top student “leading the male and female youth alike” at a time when women were just beginning to push the boundaries holding them from higher education.

Unfortunately, Miss G___ died.

Clarke, a respected Doctor and Man of Science, explained with the then-accepted “Conservation of Energy” theory that Miss G___ died because, as a woman, “she was unable to make a good brain, that could stand the wear and tear of life, and a good reproductive system that should serve the race, at the same time that she was continuously spending her force in intellectual labor.”

Miss G___ became our mascot and, like any good mascot, she continues to inspire us. She is symbolic not only of the ongoing struggle of many women to “get a fair chance” in education (theories such as Dr. Clarke’s get rejuvenated every few years, as if to revere the legacy of Scientific Men), but also because Miss G___ and others like her have been lost in history.

When people ask, “Why women’s studies in high school?” the answer is simple: “Why not!”

It is quickly followed by our question in return: “Why isn’t women’s studies taught in high schools already?” Women’s studies is not, as some have dismissed it, “a course for girls.” It is a significant scholarly discipline, one which has amassed a respected and respectable tradition since it first emerged at the university-level in the mid-twentieth century. It recognizes how women of diverse backgrounds have been made invisible through the many -isms of traditional education curricula, and attempts to uncover their stories across various disciplines. As well, Women's Studies offers important, critical, and intelligent analysis of gender constructions and gender relations.

We believe that women’s studies could have an enormously positive impact at the high school level. Students of the discipline tell us repeatedly that, had they been introduced to the materials covered in their university-level courses when they were still in high school, they would have made very different choices. And – whether majoring in women’s studies or not – the thing that most strikes women at the post-secondary level when thinking on their (very different) high school experiences is the almost universal pedagogical tendency to depreciate women's issues in subjects such as history and English, as well as the under-representation of women in the maths and sciences.

Readers of bell hooks will be familiar with the psychological effect this sense of being “missing from the classroom” can have on the young student; this in turn has a wider societal effect. Some improvements have been made since Ontario’s high school curriculum revisions a few years ago. But – as one teacher put it – the “add women and stir” methodology falls far short of filling the conspicuous gap that remains in education policy. Sprinkling women throughout the curriculum does diddley, or even diddley squat, for girls in high school. As this marks the end of formal education for many students, missing feminist explorations of the world at this level could well mean missing out for the rest of their lives.

A high school women’s studies curriculum would create a forum for the (oh, horrors!) empowerment of young women and give them alternative role-models; it would be a voice challenging all youth in their conceptions of masculinity and femininity.

We have not had to search hard for confirmation of these anticipated outcomes. As part of our effort to reach secondary school students, we’ve held workshops introducing a feminist perspective to high school politics. Rather than mention the f-word at first brush, the workshops are designed to allow students to explore the importance of gender in and outside of their classrooms through a frank and critical discussion. Following these workshops, many students approach us with further questions and commentary. Some simply wish to express gratitude. They frequently use the word “finally”; one student called the workshop an “awakening.”

Suddenly:

  • date-rape is called what it is;
  • it’s not their problem that something doesn’t feel right about the sexist advertising in a beer commercial;
  • to jokingly call a classmate a fag or a slut is not so funny.

During these same discussions, some students have also related a sense of futility. On the subject of reporting sexual harassment in the classroom, one student said with defeatist calm, “I say just shut-up and get the credit.”

The incredibly rampant sexism, sexual harassment, homophobia and bullying (to name a few) in high schools is still – despite efforts outside the curriculum – barely blinked at. Girls’ T-shirts bear degrading messages such as:

  • “I’m sorry I’m a slut”
  • “I like: boys [check], money [check], shopping [check]”

It’s as if the stereotypes imposed on teenagers without their knowledge weren’t enough. It doesn’t strike young women as odd that they should have to say things such as “I hate girls” to get the attention of young men. Why should it?

Another major part of this project has been approaching Ontario Ministry of Education officials and political figures. We’ve been on a rampage of meetings and sit-downs, not to mention some other, less conventional, methods of getting attention. (We’ve been known to crash a conference or two.) We usually include the following questions:

  • Why should access to women’s studies be reserved only for the university-bound?
  • Should we simply accept that we must go through our entire mandatory formal education without ever encountering a critical study of gender construction and socialization, and most importantly, its implications?
  • Why is women’s studies regarded as a “special interest” proposal when we are 52% of the population?
  • (And what’s up with pitting “special interests” against each other, anyway?)
  • That women can attend school at all is because of the very real contributions and histories of feminisms – why do we never learn that?

If you’re reading this and wondering the same thing, don’t keep it to yourself. It is only through active and committed citizenship that The Miss G___ Project for Equity in Education and the goal of getting women’s studies implemented into official policy will be realized.

This pressure comes from supporters of the project:

  • From high school students demanding that their education be equitable;
  • From education professionals who daily feel the need for this kind of curriculum;
  • From academics, parents, crisis workers, and anyone who understands the significant impact women’s studies could have on the lives of students, while they are in high school, and wherever they go afterward.

We do not know if women’s studies will cure the problems of sexism – and everything that goes along with it. We do know that young women in Ontario have been excluded from their own education, and that, too often their stories have been omitted from history. It is injurious enough that young women (and their male counterparts) are raised in a culture that tells them every day that they are objects; when their own education reinforces these messages by failing to address and critique them in the classroom, we have to wonder why a “fair chance for the girls” is still anything but.

The Miss G___ Project has made use of the net, that wonderful tool for the initiation of respectable mass movements, and currently calls themissgproject.org our humble web domain. Visit us anytime! And let others know we fondly welcome callers. There you can learn more about the campaign:

  • Who we’ve been working with
  • What you can do to help and
  • Information about how to contact your Minister of Provincial Parliament and the Ministry of Education

You are also invited to contact us by e-mail: themissgproject@gmail.com. We are known to respond to our messages in record time.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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