It was 2018 when I got on the bus at 7:30 am to go to school and by 8:53 am I was in my first class…
but in 1950.
When I walked into that lovely musty religion room it was still 2018, but for some reason it was like we had been thrown into a time portal that had taken us back 68 years.
The class started off like it normally did; prayer, you don’t do it with everyone else, you do it by yourself (which is a problem if you don’t still know the Hail Mary by heart).
Then things started to get interesting. You know that moment when everything stills in the room, voices stops and for a split second a class full of teenage girls stop talking? It gets even worse when the teacher standing in front of you has that grin on their face, because that teacher knows you so well that she can already sense your reaction to what theyr’e going to say.
Before she even had the chance to explain the topic on the screen my mind was racing, I knew exactly what was going to happen. My arch nemesis was back. My teacher walked to the front of the class and picked up a sheet of paper with a human outline on it, I shook my head vigorously, hoping I was wrong, she then looked at me and smiled;
“Ying and Yang.”
I couldn’t believe it was happening again.
Last time on that wonderfully new experience of a religion retreat I was told by a very passionate fellow woman that there was one very important thing we needed to take out of the extremely long day.
It was that women and men were like Ying and Yang.
In her words, women were the dark side of the symbol because we represent Eve, who was dark and corrupt. She then explained how women were malicious and manipulative, so, therefore, this made logical sense to make us the darker side of the symbol (can’t argue with logic right?)
Men were the lighter side, because they forgave easily and were generally just stronger than us.
We were given very nicely laminated pieces of card with characteristics on them, which we were then told to separate into male and female attributes.
I thought about it for a moment, risked a sideways glance at all the other girls obediently separating the ‘masculine and feminine characteristics’ into completely stereotypical bundles, and then, without reading the cards, placed them all into the middle section of the Ying and Yang.
Then, I wrote ‘SAME’ at the top of the card.
Of course, I don’t think male and females are exactly the same, there are just different personalities in each one of them. You literally cannot bundle the entire male population into one set of characteristics and the females into another and think this isn’t going to be problematic for any student with a questioning mind.
After we were told to move stations and go to the next activity, I was pulled aside by our year team leader. He stopped me and said to me, “I think we’ve heard enough from you today.” I can’t even begin to explain what I was feeling; someone I respect and look up to, one of my favourite teachers at the school, someone who had mentored me through being a leader at the school (in the Sports department, they wouldn’t let me near religion, I’m guessing) telling me to stop talking about things I saw as right. My heart sank.
This time around, the sheet was slightly different. No Ying and Yang but instead a human figure outline. We were told we had to do the same sort of activity; I was to put characteristics of a male on one side and those of a female’s on the other.
As examples, my teacher said that ‘nurturing’ was to go on the female side because women are
“genetically modified (I think she meant conditioned) to be that way. Men don’t communicate and just grunt and aren’t nurturing, which means they never look after the babies or change their nappies.”
This is probably a slight paraphrasing of her exact words, but pretty spot on.
When I told my Dad that, he said he’d missed the memo. In fact, he was horrified anyone would teach his daughter he wasn’t a nurturer.
Later in the lesson, she also told us that,
“women and especially young girls should not wear backless dresses or post pictures of themselves in their bathers on the internet because boys get too excited”.
I don’t know if you’d have the same reaction but there was just something about that statement that made my hand go up instantly,
I told her that it is demeaning to tell young girls what they can and can’t wear in case the boys react badly. I brought up the incident where parents of Year 8s last year received emails 10 days before our first river cruise social with our brother school to say the school’s dress code for the evening was pants. We weren’t allowed to wear dresses. When we asked in Homeroom the next day the reasons why, we were told some very immature boys looked up the girls’ skirts when they walked up the boat stairs some years before. Instead of punishing the boys, they modified the dress code for the girls.
The message was: boys will be boys.
I question whether it’s the best message educators should be spreading to a school full of young girls. Of course, my teacher only nodded and took no notice, I completed my worksheet (very fast because, yet again, LOOPHOLE OF CHUCKING ALL THE CHARACTERISTICS IN THE MIDDLE!)
I wrote on my sheet;
“What is a man? What is a woman? Are we not the same?”
In the human (male) outline I wrote every attribute I could think of: caring, loving, strong, fierce and I even drew roses and hearts on the ‘men’s’ side and footy jersey and a car on the ‘woman’s’ side.
As I walked out of class that day my teacher stopped and asked me. “will I be surprised by your sheet Ella?” Let’s face it, she already knew what I had done.
(I found it interesting that when I was ranting on the bus that afternoon a boy from my brother school was shocked because they’ve NEVER studied that and won’t be this year, as far as he knows. Not only did that infuriate me, because why, why do girls study the roles between male and females every year when the boys aren’t even expected to consider the subject?)
It makes me so sad.
My school is a good school.
I have teachers that empower women and stand up for what is right. I have amazing student leaders that are always looking for ways to incorporate more women’s rights in the school, who are clever and strong and open and honest. I have an amazing friendship group that are diverse as we are the same and who have each other’s back. And even if we still never do anything for International Women’s Day, my school values smart, humanitarian, hard-working young women who go and do something good in the world.
But… we’re also being taught this fundamentally damaging and so outdated model of masculine and feminine. And I think it might just be my personal duty to raise my hand and take on this topic every time it rises back from the depths of out-of-date despair.
I recently went to see Clementine Ford speak (at a different girls’ school, ironically), and I was moved as well as completely and utterly amazed by her insight and what we do to boys and girls when we embrace sexism:
““toxic masculinity”, which she defines as a rigid adherence to narrowly-defined, traditional norms of masculinity such as entitlement, aggressiveness, disdain for women, and homophobia — can be as harmful to men and boys as it is for women and girls” – ABC News, September 2018.
It is important to point out that ‘aggressiveness’ was on the list of attributes I was told I should put on the male side of the human card.
So while that’s still being taught, year after year, to all the competent, intelligent, thinking girls at my school, I think it’s worthwhile to question in. Not disrespectfully, I still want to be a student leader in Year 12 (and stay out of detention, thanks). But in a way that’s constant and determined.
Because it’s my religion teacher’s job to teach me about the beauty of the religion of my school. But it might be my job to question her every day about her stereotypical view on gender roles.
Ella writes stuff. Lots of stuff. Some of it makes it to How Dare She? much is hidden away. She is a beast on the netball court, the vintage typewriter, head in a book, and when anyone is in trouble. She has a heart of gold and a core of steel and very good taste in friends. She is co-owner and founder of How Dare She? and you’d better not tell her what she can’t do
Why are we doing this thing? Because there’s enough noise in the world telling women what we ‘should’ be doing.
We should parent more consciously, but not be helicopter parents. We should take care of our bodies, but not be vain. We should make boys pay, but demand equal rights. We should dress appropriately, but also be confident in our skin, wear what we want, but not be provocative, oh and please feel comfortable in the world’s skimpiest school bathers but then wear your jeans to the formal because last year the boys looked up the girls’ skirts and so you’ll have to be the ones to modify your behaviour. Yeah. No.
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