Thursday, 1 October 2015

I am a feminist. I am a teacher. I am Mrs C Spalding.

My love affair with feminism started at the age of 16, the moment I read an article in 'The Independent' declaring "Is this what we meant by feminism?" alongside a picture of a drunken young woman complete with spilling beer in hand. It was the era of the 'ladette' - a media-created female parody who mimicked the actions of an equally as mythical and reductive vision of a man who felt the need to prove himself to others by consuming his body weight in strong lager.

To me, feminism was heroic women in big skirts chucking themselves under hooves to win females the vote. For the writer to claim that my generation somehow 'wasn't worth the bother', whatever our questionable drinking choices, was my call to arms. Or rather, to pen: the resulting letter to the editor even making it into the paper.

In the next few years, I consumed the work of Greer and Davies, Faludi and Woolstencraft. And, when my bloody brilliant A Level English Lit teacher directed me towards them, I latched onto Carter, Plath and Woolf.

Alongside this I discovered a whole new group of brave, exciting and ground breaking women. Only these ones played guitars and the drums and fought for equality in a very different area: music.

Riotgrrl grew out of the same American punk scene that gave us the ubiquitous Kurt and Courtney and lifelong loves of mine like Minor Threat and Babes in Toyland. Frustrated by macho gigs and the lack of female representation in the alternative music scene, women and likeminded men banded together and tried to create something a bit different. For me it marked the start of two years of adventures, from helping to run a music festival in a legalised squat in Amsterdam (thanks for letting me go to that one, mum) to contributing to zines now homed in the Women's Library in London to getting published a bit in this book:

I met truly unique young women and men and, although I now cringe at the use of the word 'grrl', it secured for me a lifelong commitment to the feminist cause and the pursuit of gender equality, key to which, of course, is freedom from binary notions of gender for both sexes.

Fast forward ten years and I'm now bucking a good few of the dominant ideologies associated with the female: bread winner, leader, ferocious competitive streak, fan of data, happy in my own skin. I've also married and have taken my husband's name, love shopping, and occasionally wear lipstick. All of which are equally irrelevant. Because if feminism taught me anything it's that I can do whatever I damn well choose to, so long as it doesn't impact negatively on others. As can every man and woman, regardless of their gender.

But I am keenly aware that this freedom is not the case for every woman. We live in an era when a woman can still be shot in the head for seeking an education, where women are still routinely paid less for the same work, and where we have had to develop an acronym for chopping off parts of a woman's anatomy so frequently does it (dis)grace our newsfeeds.

Which all makes me deeply uncomfortable when I see some of the debate arising in education circles.

I am not a 'girl' and do not subscribe to 'girl power'. Does anyone truly believe the Spice Girls, product of a misogynistic pop industry, can be role models for a movement of any significance? Did anyone else read Laura Mulvey? I'm not a 'little bit more qualified'. I'm a lot qualified. I don't 'occasionally wear professional dress'. I am a professional. No I don't believe that I have been discriminated against when applying for jobs and nor do I feel pressured by my work/life balance any more than my male colleagues.

The gender issue is far more subtle, complex, and serious than these distractions.

I might as well add that, on reflection, I also could not give a crap if I refer to myself as 'Mrs' or 'Ms' - it's most definitely not a sign of ownership by my husband (I think he'd snort out of his nose at the very idea) and I don't feel demeaned or exposed at people knowing I'm married to him. He's ace. I don't care if I refer to students as 'guys': my commitment to making all of them feel comfortable in their own skin regardless of where they fall on the gender spectrum every single lesson trumps any simplistic notions about the impact of nomenclature.

In our schools, we do indeed have a disturbing gender gap in the make up of our SLT, but I feel equally disturbed by the growing gender gap in achievement between boys and girls in my subject. The causes of both of these patterns are multi-faceted and numerous. They cannot be summed up in an infographic and solutions cannot be honed solely through a national conference or Teach meet. They are social and cultural as much as pedagogical.

So, a plea to the wonderful women involved in #womened. I'd love to be involved too. But let's get serious. Let's stop talking about wearing heels to work. Let's stop using sassy pop references. Let's talk about the fact that boys are underachieving as well as the appalling lack of female Head teachers. Let's make this a real gender debate.


  1. Thank you for this - really agree with so much of this. Especially about freedom to not have to fit into neat little stereotypes!! It's so restricting!! Good for you.

  2. I think there are two issues here and that it helps to tease them out from each other. There is the need for women to feel comfortable in their own skin (and not all do) and to share ideas/thoughts/feelings with other women so as to help them break through the stereotypes for themselves and help them into more senior positions. Then there is the wider need to make schools as a whole much more equal places where everyone achieves as much as they can and no one is deterred from doing anything because of unconscious bias and stereotypes. This includes boys underachieving and girls not choosing physics and maths.

    My reading of the womened unconference (which I followed via twitter) was that it was about developing women leaders. And I think this is a good thing - it is clearly fulfilling a need. But it is not going to solve all the inequalities in schools, for that we will need something else - and yes we do need to have the discussion about how that might be done. Having spent many years involved with women in science organisations I've found that it really helps for an organisation to have a very clear idea of what it is for and what it can (and cannot) do. WomenEd seems to be organised by a group of very committed and very busy women. They have chosen a particular issue to pursue and need to be encouraged to make progress with it. But I would suggest that they won't have the capacity to also take on other gender issues and that there is a real need to consider how all the other gender issues in schools need to be addressed. And they shouldn't be addressed just by women.

    1. Agreed I think the focus of the fantastic WomenEd movement is female leadership, but I don't necessarily agree that this can be neatly separated from wider gender debates or that the lack of female leadership can be solely addressed by looking at the behaviour and attitudes of women alone.

      I also agree that supporting women 'feel comfortable in their own skin' is important - I regularly use Twitter myself for this kind of emotional/social support - but, in my opinion, a number of the discussions around WomenEd actually served to reinforce stereotypes rather than usefully tackle any barriers to leadership, some of which I refer to in the blog.

  3. Enjoyed reading this, Caroline.

    The #WomenEd conference was fascinating, and while I accept it's only part of the picture and very much the continuation of a conversation which has already been going on for at least a couple of hundred years, it was hugely energising and diverse. There was recognition of the danger of ironically reinforcing stereotypes while trying to raise awareness and discuss them (do see this post from Summer Turner if you haven't already: and lively debate about that. There was a recognition that we DO need to look at the behaviour and attitudes of women, but that that isn't the full story. There was acceptance that we need men and women to support aspiring and serving women leaders if we're to make the most of the potential of both genders - and there was discussion about other types of discrimination and wasted talent.

    Actually wish you'd been there - and it would have been so good to meet you! Am sure we will meet at another event.

    Thanks again for the post.