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Tag: Feminism

Anger can be useful. But not always.

The internet isn’t just making us dumb, it’s making us angry. And it is women who are among the fastest adopters for venting their rage online.

There’s plenty of fodder to fuel righteous female fury. There’s the social and political structures that contribute to violence against women, the gender pay gap, and a lack of autonomy over reproductive choices for a kick-off.

Then there are the domestic battles over who does the majority of the housework, or who shoulders the most responsibility for parenting.

There is also the more personal anger experienced by women who feel they do not fit into our increasingly narrow definition of beauty, or who feel they have become invisible as they age.

Embracing the full spectrum of feelings is healthy, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with anger per se. Put simply, as it was in the Pixar film Inside Out (a children’s movie that explores the importance all the various human emotions have in our lives) “Anger cares very deeply about things being fair.”

Yet is choosing to express this care only through rage good for women long-term, or indeed for bringing about the changes we so desire?

Anger can be a useful mechanism for blowing off steam, or for rallying those who feel similarly to move into activism. And it can certainly help garner attention.

Just as the shouting, desk-throwing student ensures they get more attention in class than their more considered classmates, studies have shown that angry tweets are almost three times as likely to be retweeted by others, opinion pieces that lean heavily on rage are more likely to go viral (which is why so many politicians and media commentators trade in outrage), angry Facebook posts are more likely to be engaged with (even if the engagement is merely to attract a red-faced angry emoticon: instant ire).

It can also feel like an act of revolution for a woman to express anger, particularly as there is a longstanding tradition of attempting to silence or mock hostile minority voices. Why shouldn’t we women exercise our right to roar?

There are definitely times when we should. But perhaps it’s time to at least acknowledge that there is a price being paid for using rage as the default weapon in our armoury, and to explore other methods of expression and persuasion too.

Unmanaged anger takes a toll on the health and wellbeing of both genders. Some of the health implications associated with this include high blood pressure, headaches, insomnia, increased anxiety and depression (although it is important to recognise that others live with these very same health consequences because they’re forced to navigate oppressive environments).

Anger can also do more to alienate others from an idea than it does to draw them in; it tends to build more walls than it does bridges.

Change-makers know that the key to winning minds and hearts long-term is through the sharing of personal stories that help build empathy, the use of humour (Scott Weems, a cognitive neuroscientist and author asserts that “Humour is a great way for us to have evolved so we don’t have to hit each other with sticks”) and through using shame-free language that fosters connection, rather than distance.

Dr Natalie Ferres, Chief Connection Officer at management consultancy Bendelta, argues that in fact the way to change people’s minds is not to inundate them with anger as this only solidifies tightly held beliefs: “Coercion doesn’t connect.”

While few in power have ever given it over simply as they were asked nicely to do so, nor do they usually hand it over when they are shouted at either. It seems in our rush to be heard, we may have forgotten that it is not always he (or she) who yells the loudest that ultimately wins.

We may have forgotten too that there are many different ways to be a woman of influence.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 15/7/17.

Sex-obsessed. Boy-crazy. Annoying. Not so fast — teen girls are much better than that.

This post originally appeared on News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

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“Lies, scams and deceit — just your average teen girl.” “Lost innocence: Why girls are having rough sex at 12.” ‘Drug toll … A generation of teenage girls riddled with fear and anxiety is overdosing in record numbers.” “The Invincible — A startling exposé on this generation of young women who show no fear about the dangers of sex, booze, or even the sun.”

Another day, another media headline urging us to view adolescent girls as either vulnerable victims in need of protection, or as a wanton and wild demographic we need to be protected from.

Worrying about the younger generation is nothing new. An inscription found in a 6000 year-old Egyptian tomb highlights the enduring nature of our fears that youth are lost: “We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self control.”

But thanks to this digital age the hand-wringing dialogue that surrounds our daughters in particular — no matter how well intentioned it may be — is now forming the running commentary for the lives of many teen girls.

Author and feminist Emily Maguire, in her essay “Sugar, Spice and Stronger Stuff” asks us to consider how the teen girls who see and hear these discussions might feel:

“Teen girls are not a separate species — they walk among us. They see and hear and read the same things we do, including all those features about sexting and raunch culture and under-age sex. They notice how those articles are always illustrated with photos of teenage bodies in tiny skirts or low-cut tops, the faces blurred or heads lopped off. They are aware of the way serious news sources and trash media alike use their bodies to sell papers even as they express deep concern about how girls are using those same bodies — their own — for pleasure …

No wonder so many girls feel misunderstood and alienated … And when loving parents buy into it they end up either alienating their daughters or infecting them with their own fear and panic.”

There is in fact a longstanding tradition of using scare tactics as a means of controlling women and this starts early. Fairytales are some of the first cautionary tales told to girls. These stories provide clear messages about obedience, adherence to traditional gender roles, beauty and virtue, and the dangers inherent in being an ambitious woman who seeks any form of power (cue wicked witches). They also often emphasis the need for girls to have male protectors; whether these be handsome princes or kindly kings.

There is also a longstanding tradition of omitting the bravery and resilience of young women from our cultural narratives. We tend not to share stories of girls who thrive and strive, or broadcast statistics that highlight the positive.

Here in Australia teen pregnancy, cigarette smoking, illicit drug use and alcohol drinking rates and all down. Meanwhile school retention and academic performance rates have significantly increased for girls. It seems we have a generation that are not as self-obsessed as we’d like to paint them as being. 80 per cent of Girl Guides over the age of 10 commit two or more hours each week to volunteering; almost double the amount of time contributed by adults.

Anecdotally, as an educator who works with thousands of teen girls every year across Australia I’ve observed that girls are doing remarkably well in a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, or have much faith in their decision-making capacity.

And when we are not choosing to ignore, we sometimes choose to conceal. Historically, we have attributed the achievements of adolescent girls to those of much older women. Case in point, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who in 1955 was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

Colvin’s act inspired the civil rights movement that followed as nine months later middle-aged Rosa Parks became the public face for this movement. Colvin has since explained “[t]hey (the leaders of the civil rights movement) thought I would be too militant for them. They wanted someone mild and genteel like Rosa.”

None of this is to say that there are not very real issues teen girls struggle with that we do need to address; body image angst, disordered eating, self harm, binge drinking, navigating technology safely, developing and maintaining respectful relationships. These are some of the issues I’ve devoted my career to supporting girls to manage. But the answer lies in education — not moral panic, or policing and patronising. We must give girls the skills they need to make informed choices and encourage them to turn their critical gaze on their culture, not themselves and each other. We must present them with more positive role models. We must actively seek out opportunities to celebrate their wins. Importantly, we must also make it OK for them to take risks and make mistakes.

Dr Briony Scott, Principal of girls’ school Wenona, in her essay on “Women and Power” called too for a change in perspective:

“In the years that I have been a principal, it is abundantly clear to me that families are doing a magnificent job but they do so in the face of cultural expectations that would lead them to think otherwise. There is a social and cultural normalising of the belief that raising girls is an almost impossible task. Along with this comes a presumption that when anything does goes wrong for girls, it must be because they are depressed, mentally fragile, and/or prone to anxiety.

Such a view, apart from being inherently presumptuous, trivialises those young women (and men) who genuinely struggle with their mental health, and pathologises what is fundamentally, a normal developmental path. It does an extraordinary disservice to young women who are simply navigating the road to adulthood.”

Let’s not feed the self-fulfilling prophecy that teen girls are either troubled or trouble.

Because the real picture? It’s far brighter.

I don’t believe self-defence training is “victim blaming”. And I’m a feminist.

I’m a proud feminist. And I’m the CEO of Australia’s largest provider of in-school workshops for teen girls that help develop self-worth and resilience. And I promote self-defence classes to young women.

Here’s how, and here’s why.

The uncomfortable truth? Teen girls are likely to experience violence in their lifetime; this can occur in a wide range of contexts ranging from schoolyard bullying and peer based aggression, through to street based harassment and stranger intimidation, through to physical assault and sexual violence.

And while we all agree this is a situation that needs to be urgently addressed, where feminists disagree is on the kind of advice, if any, which should be given to girls given this reality.

Some argue passionately that any attempt to modify young women’s behaviours is in effect victim blaming, and that the onus on change must always be placed squarely and solely at the feet of those who would harm.

I agree that often the dialogue on what women should do to stay safe, particularly after high profile media reporting on the death of a woman, can become (sometimes unintentionally) focused on what women wear, where they choose to go, whether they chose to drink alcohol. It focuses on limiting women’s freedoms.

This is never helpful. This is never OK. And it tends to assume that men who would harm are strangers lurking in dark alleys, waiting for their next vulnerable victim. As the statistics on domestic violence here in Australia clearly show, this is not always the case.

However, if self-defence is framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor, it can do much to shift this type of thinking. In fact, at the end of our sessions, many girls have approached us to explain how for the first time they felt understood; “I’ve always felt like maybe I must have somehow been to blame for my boyfriend hurting me like that. I now know that it had nothing to do with me …”

Importantly too, there must be an emphasis on the fact that we must also never blame a victim who doesn’t (for whatever reason) act assertively or fight back when in a threatening situation. Any of us, even trained professionals in the army or police force, can freeze in the face of danger. By explaining the body’s instinctive fight, flight or freeze survival mechanism, again much can be done to alleviate victim blaming and shaming.

In this age of body-image angst, self-defence classes also challenge the myth that women’s bodies are merely ornamental. Girls can be fast, strong and powerful; they can set physical boundaries. They can take up more space.

And girls can learn how and when to set verbal boundaries: “Stop! I don’t like it!”. Self-defence classes encourage girls to find their voices which is in contrast to the passivity-push that would have us believe girls should be sugar, spice and all things nice; seen and not heard.

In addition, girls are encouraged to shout-out not just for themselves but for others too; we also teach ethical bystander behaviour. There is great strength in connecting girls to each other and in fostering a sense of sisterhood.

And let me tell you, girls love all of this. Our self-defence workshop would be one of the ones girls rave about the most in their evaluations of our work. There is always laughter, giggling and a real delight in feeling powerful rather than powerless.

Finally, there is plenty of evidence to show self-defence classes can be useful in certain contexts. After news of an English women who had been trained in martial arts beating her sex-attacker unconscious broke recently, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cossett argued that it was her own knowledge of self-defence that had saved her in an attack too; “After fighting off my attacker … (I kicked, scratched, punched, wrestled him to the ground, and told him he was a motherf****r) … I am baffled as to why self-defence has become so apparently outmoded, because it helped me when I needed it most. I grew up with a mother who used to run workshops for women who were victims of domestic violence in South London. It was she who taught me to face my attacker kicking and screaming, and in doing so she saved my life.

“That’s not to say that I might not have frozen … you cannot predict how any human will react, and I speak only for myself — but I am baffled that it is not taught more in schools. Why not have kickboxing and martial arts in PE lessons? Ultimately, extra-curricular karate lessons proved more useful to me than netball ever did.”

And what do the schools we have worked with say?

I have had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running these courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions their girls had been harassed on trains and knew to follow their instincts, move away quickly and to let other adults around them know they were feeling unsafe. Importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.”

And I have had many, many messages from teen girls that have told me that they suspect knowing that it is OK to set boundaries (and how to do this assertively) has kept them safe in a myriad of different situations. Everything from being bullied in the playground by other students, to being cornered at a party by a guy they trusted who tried to coerce them into sex.

Doctors Jill Cermele and Martha McCaughey, women’s self-defence advocates and founders of site “See Jane Fight Back!” also argue: “Self-defence challenges the belief that rape is thwarted only by the perpetrator “coming to his senses”, through bystander interference, or divine intervention. “Yep. In a perfect world? It would not be necessary to focus on how women and girls can learn assertiveness and self-defence skills. But we do not yet live in that world.

And while the vital work to help curb violence continues, so too should the programs for girls and women that provide options and strategies for keeping safe.

Knowledge is power. And I choose to pass power on.

This post originally appeared in News Corp’s popular online opinion site RendezView. 

 

Feminism, girls and the economy, the art of being alone: my week in the media.

I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to, and write, some really interesting pieces for various media outlets this week. I want to share the highlights with you here.

The always-wise Dr Karen Brooks unpacked the reluctance some (including our political leaders) have with the term “Feminist” here: Why is feminism such an uncomfortable word?

Increasingly, young women are afraid to align themselves with feminism in case it makes them a social pariah. They also feel too intimidated to join the often robust dialogue about what it means to be a feminist in contemporary times for fear of how they’ll be spoken to or silenced or (mis)understood. An example of this can be seen in Helen Razer’s response to Watson’s speech (“a boxed kitten makes great digital capital” – ouch).

This lack of generosity towards fledgling feminists and their position needs to be addressed.

Dannielle Miller, author and CEO of Enlighten Education, runs workshops with tens of thousands of young women every year. She says less than 10 per cent call themselves feminists even though most admit they’re not quite sure what a feminist is. But once they understand, they see it makes sense to be one. “After all,” says Miller, “why wouldn’t you believe in gender equality?”

I loved having the opportunity to contribute and offer an insight into how young women feel about the women’s movement. As I explained in a previous blog post, for me, finding Feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding Home. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. What a joy then to be able to introduce the next generation to a movement that is still very much needed – and in desperate need of their perspectives!

One of the ways in which I connect young girls to Feminism through Enlighten’s Real Girl Power workshop is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?). You may read more about this workshop here. 

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Ninemsn ran the results of a huge UK survey on teens conducted by the Schools Health Education Unit. The key findings? 

The state of the economy is not just a bother for bankers — teenage girls seem to be absorbing the stress too, with a survey suggesting their confidence has dipped since the world was thrust into a Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

Cyber bullying is also taking its toll, according to the UK survey of 30,000 school students, with a third of 10 and 11-year-olds saying they fear being bullied.

Teens’ confidence ratings had been consistently improving between 1990 and 2008 when 41 percent of 14 and 15-year-old girls said they had a high self-esteem.

But that dropped in the following six years, with only 33 percent now saying they feel good about themselves.

Why might the economy may be impacting on girls in this way? I am quoted in the article: “Children are economically dependent on their parents and their families and those pressures filter downwards. Often the first things that tend to go are branded items, such as cosmetics and new clothes, which are the kinds of things that really matter to teenagers…Having the right shoes or brand of jeans can seem like such a critical thing for trying to fit in with a peer group. There also is social stigma about being the ‘poor kid’… I would imagine a lot of young people are feeling a sense of shame, which is impacting on their sense of self and their self-esteem.” I also helped explain why we may still be seeing huge concerns over body image and technology in this article so do check it out.

Finally, I wrote an Opinion piece for the Daily Telegraph on the art of being alone. Although this was aimed at all readers, not just those who care for young women, you may find some of the ideas on the art of connection useful.

More people are living by themselves than ever before. In fact one in 10 Australians live alone. Single, however, does not necessarily mean lonely. Countries with high levels of people living alone actually score well on international happiness ratings.

Is it because these solo artists are content in their own company?

Not entirely.

Despite the popular rhetoric around the appeal of “me-time,” the reality is we are social creatures and need human interactions in order to be happy.

Social researcher Hugh Mackay, author of The Art of Belonging, argues that “communities can be magical places, but the magic comes from us, not to us”.

The key then is to learn how to venture out and connect. And even more fundamentally, to learn that it is OK to do so. It is this idea that I explored in my writing.

Enjoy!

 

 

I’m a Feminist – Loud and Proud

I  recently returned to United World College (UWC) Singapore, at both the Dover and East Campuses, to follow up on the work I did there in April, and to meet some of the young women I had not yet had the opportunity to “Enlighten”. What an amazing, inspiring and humbling few days!

On a personal note, the young women at Dover gave me a rock-star reception and spontaneously cheered me all the way through the school grounds to the car park. If only I had had a video to capture this moment – although I probably wouldn’t have been able to film as I was crying with joy. What had made these girls so engaged?

Much of what I did this trip was around engaging girls to the broader women’s movement. For me, finding Feminism as a teen girl felt very much like finding Home. Finally, a place where I felt known, understood, accepted and challenged! I still find the sisterhood to be the most incredible source of inspiration and validation. What a joy then to be able to introduce the next generation to a movement that is still very much needed – and in desperate need of their perspectives!

One of the ways in which I connect young girls to Feminism through Enlighten’s Real Girl Power workshop is through humour (which is a great way too of instantly debunking any “feminists can’t be fun” stereotypes). We begin by exploring what popular culture will often tell us girl-power should look like and deconstruct how the phrase has been used to sell women everything from cleaning products to super-stomach-sucking-elastic pants (irony much?).

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I then love to get the teachers involved by inviting them up too to do an impromptu dance to the ultimate girl-power group – The Spice Girls; “Yo I tell you what I want, what I really, really want…” I am always thrilled how well teachers embrace this – and yes, the girls absolutely go crazy! And from this platform of humour and critical analysis, we begin exploring (in the words of Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary) what it is that women “really, really want.”

Slide I use showing my involvement (along with with many other women and young girls) at recent "Pull The Pin" rallies against child beauty pageants.
Slide I use showing my involvement (along with with many other women and young girls) at recent “Pull The Pin” rallies against child beauty pageants.

The big issues I chose to help girls deconstruct include the participation and treatment of women in politics, in the workplace, and in the sporting arena. We also then reflect on the issue of violence against women. Girls are invariably shocked and outraged at some of the statistics I share and are soon questioning what they too can do to rectify things. I then offer a “call to action” – I do not want girls feeling a sense of despair, but rather I want them engaged to be change-makers. Girls are encouraged (and shown) how to speak-up through participation in protests and petitions. And I hand out our very popular “Girl Caught” stickers which encourage young women to speak back to marketers that portray women in a negative way.

Enlighten's "Girl Caught" stickers
Enlighten’s “Girl Caught” stickers

And finally, I love to show the girls just how broad, embracing (and cool!) Club Feminist really is by highlighting what their teachers think about the movement. Prior to presenting at UWC I asked the staff to email me their pictures and tell me why they are Feminists. I then collated their responses into a PowerPoint presentation. Below are just a few of the many responses I received:

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I invited girls to also share their “Loud and Proud” photos at Enlighten’s Instagram page. We are starting to get some amazing contributions and would welcome yours too. Use the hash tags below to ensure we find your contribution and can share it:

Follow us! The page is Administrated by 17tear old student Lauren Muscatt. We are so proud of the work she is doing there to offer our followers powerful, positive messages and connect them to the Enlighten cyber-community.
Follow us! The page is Administrated by 17 year old student Lauren Muscatt. We are so proud of the work she is doing there to offer our followers powerful, positive messages and connect them to the Enlighten cyber-community.

What could you do to connect more young people to the Feminist movement? Love to hear your ideas.

P.S. Real Girl Power is one of the many workshops Enlighten offers as part of its half or full day programs. If your girls have already had either a half-day or full-day Enlighten Education program in the past, they are eligible to have this offered as a special stand-alone 1hr follow-up workshop.
Contact us at Enlighten HQ if you are interested in this : 1300 735 997
Or email us: enquiries@enlighteneducation.com 

Asquith Girls High: Looking at the Big Picture

At Enlighten, we know that girls flourish and shine after our workshops, because we’ve seen it with our own eyes (and felt it in their big warm hugs!). But our work does so much more than give girls a self-esteem and confidence boost on the day. We aim to be part of a wider and ongoing culture change for the girls we work with, at school and beyond.

We encourage schools to maximise the benefit of our work by using it as part of a big-picture approach, and this week I’d like to share with you what I think is one of the best examples of a school doing just that. Jane Ferris, the principal of Asquith Girls High School, a public school in Sydney, last year attended a national conference in Melbourne that I was a keynote speaker at, “Insights: A Fresh Look at Girls’ Education”. In an unusual and forward-thinking move, she had brought along three of the school’s staff, too. They were inspired and felt that Enlighten’s message was what they needed, as part of the school’s broader program of improving outcomes for girls. Jane said:

When you have 900 young women attending an all girls’ school, it is a great opportunity to focus on issues confronting young women today. Since girls now outperform boys in external exams such as the HSC, it is too easy to consider that all the battles have been won and we no longer need to worry about issues in girls’ education. However, something is still holding young women back in our society as they are under-represented in business, our legal system and politics – what a waste of so much talent! Also, sadly, women as a group have too many experiences of abuse and violence. Therefore as a school we need to support young women to have a positive outlook, believe in themselves and ‘have a go’ in all that they strive to achieve.

From the outset, Jane saw that the greatest value would come from involving the whole school, so she organised her own one-day staff training conference for the teachers. I spoke, along with a number of other experts in teen girls’ issues. Then I came back to present to the girls, and something I have never experienced before happened: Jane released the entire welfare team for the day so they could come and watch me in action with the girls. This turned out to be incredibly valuable, because it meant that once I left, the staff had a deep understanding of what the girls had learned and experienced. They could speak the same language with the girls as I had, thus giving ongoing life to the work we’d done that day. The staff were empowered to be part of the culture change.

Jane notes that since starting their work on girls’ issues, the school’s “staff are more aware and taking things on board . . . At the nucleus is a gender team of staff and executive that have led a girls’ education conference and follow-up in all faculties.” They use every opportunity in the curriculum to promote the theme, Jane notes:

As Danni says, the most common glass ceiling holding girls back is the mirror they look in. Therefore this has proved a very positive starting point for our students, to think about themselves more positively. We want to follow through on this and get them to realise the pressures they are under as consumers. Through English and Commerce we want them to learn to deconstruct advertising and identify how they are being targeted in ways that not only ensure they buy more, but at the price of feeling they are not good enough. Through the curriculum we also want to make sure they learn about positive female role models.

Judging by the girls’ passionate and positive feedback, they were powerfully moved by the workshops I led. I am truly touched that one of the girls, Bec Torrington, in Year 9, has even nominated me for a Pride of Australia award in the Inspiration category. But kudos to Jane for seeing that there is wider, ongoing work to be done:

Danni is a highly motivational speaker and clearly has had a positive impact on the way our students feel. However, there are no quick fixes or magic wands. As a school we have to continue to promote a message of positive outlooks and friendships amongst our students.
In planning one always need to look at the big-picture rather than isolated programs or initiatives. Our approach is one of developing the whole young woman with a breadth of learning opportunities and extra curricular activities – to empower her with the experiences and skills to succeed in the world outside of school.

"Enlightened" girls completing the 21 day challenge.
"Enlightened" girls completing the 21 day challenge.

In light of Jane’s point about school staff working together to maintain a positive culture for girls, I’ve put together some discussion starters that schools might like to consider at their next staff meetings or staff development programs. These are based on previous blog posts, which can act as an impetus for discussion. Staff could split into groups, each considering one of these discussion starters, then report back to the whole staff:

Keeping Feminism Relevant
Rather than just fretting about and lamenting the plight of teen girls, at Enlighten we offer a viable alternative: feminism! This week a commentator in the UK made this excellent point, which I feel sums us up: “Feminists can make cause with traditionalists in wanting to limit some of the more extreme effects of an exploitative culture . . . But let’s be clear. We can only help [girls] if we have a good alternative to offer: the role models, the interesting jobs and the alternative ways of enjoying life that make a padded bra and a bit of rude dancing on the telly not shocking – just rather dull.” Yes!

About feminism:
International Women’s Day: Keeping Feminism Relevant
Putting Girls’ Issues Back on the Radar

Discussion starter:
– How are you connecting the young women at your school to the women’s movement?

Raising Girls Who Have the Courage to Be Imperfect

About embracing imperfection:
The Courage to Be Imperfect

Discussion starters:
– What signs are there that girls are numbing the feeling that they aren’t good enough?
– What steps can we start taking today to make the girls in our lives feel confident that they are loved and worthy?

Beyond Mean Girls

About bullying:
Bullying: It’s Time to Focus on Solutions

Discussion starters:
– In what ways does your school celebrate differences?
– What resources does your school currently access to assist in creating a safe environment for all students?
– How could these initiatives be enhanced?

Cyber Gals

About girls and information and communications technologies:
Real-World Tech Influencers

Discussion starters:
– How are the young women at your school encouraged to do creative, inspiring things using technology?
– Who are the female tech-influencers within your school who your girls can use as role models?

Girls and Eating

About girls and eating disorders:
Like Mother, Like Daughter
Eating Disorders and Primary School Children

Discussion starters:
– How can your school encourage girls to make healthy choices without shaming them?
– How might the relationship girls have with food affect their academic performance?

Putting Girls Issues Back On The Radar

The following is a reprint of an article written by Rachel Power for the June 2010 issue of the magazine published by the Australian Education Union (Victorian Branch). It is reprinted here with their permission. It may also be downloaded in its original format as a PDF to share with colleagues: News_4_feminism

Boys’ struggles in the classroom have dominated education policy for a decade. But it has it been at the expense of girls? Rachel Power investigates the return of feminism in education.

BOYS have been the focus of attention when it comes to literacy and gender issues in recent times. Meanwhile, girls have been “silently imploding”, educator Danielle Miller warns.

“Boys tend to explode, and so they draw lots of attention to themselves,” she says. “Girls implode. The statistics on eating disorders, binge drinking and self harm are starting to filter through now and I think this has put girls back on the radar big time.”

Miller, CEO of Enlighten Education and a former secondary teacher, is one of a number of women in education attempting to address some of these issues.

AEU women’s officer Barb Jennings agrees that the recent focus on boys’ failure to thrive in the classroom has led to a paucity of resources for programs and strategies directed at girls.

The exception is the issue of girls and body image, which has gained increasing attention. A 2008 AEU survey of female members found over 90% indicating they were either “very concerned” or “moderately concerned” about girls and women with body image difficulties, eating disorders, self esteem concerns or who were self-harming.

High numbers reported the issues as prevalent in their own school communities and at all levels of schooling, even preschool.

Miller is deeply concerned about the sexualisa- tion of children in the media and its impact on their mental health.

For young women, the ultimate glass ceiling has become the bedroom mirror, she says.

“Behind the facade of success — academically, socially and on the sporting field — our girls are in trouble. Girls exist in a subtle, insidious world created by marketing hype, peer pressure and unrealistic self-expectation, and it is poisoning them at a most vulnerable age.”

Since 2003, the national Enlighten Education program has gone from having “three or four clients to literally hundreds” — mainly secondary schools looking for a way to address body image and self-esteem issues and enhance outcomes among their female students.

Miller says parents and teachers are increasingly aware that the “sexed-up lifestyle” being marketed to children is having a devastating impact — on all young people, but girls in particular.

She wants to give girls the tools to critically evaluate the messages that bombard them every day and develop ways of responding intelligently and objectively. Enlighten Education delivers workshops for girls on everything from time management and coping with stress, to safe partying and maintaining positive friendships.

Among those contacting Enlighten Education for help are schools confronting a rise in inappropriate behaviour among their female students, with several reporting that Mondays are spent “cleaning up the carnage” of what happened on the weekend.

Welfare officer Fiona Isles was one such client, seeking a strategy for dealing with bitchy behaviour among female students in her region. “There were concerns from teaching staff about the types of behaviour they were seeing, particularly exclusion [of peers],” says Fiona, former wellbeing officer for the Portland Education Network. “It’s mainly in the playground, but of course that filters back in to the classroom.”

Enlighten Education offered what she wanted: a program that would help the students develop conflict resolution skills, as well as celebrate what it means to be a girl. Over the past three years, 180 Grade 6 girls from the town’s three main primary schools and the shire’s smaller rural schools have come together to take part.

“There was a lot to organise and some schools were less receptive than others about the whole ‘girls’ thing’,” Fiona says. “But to see the girls so receptive and willing to listen and share their thoughts was so brilliant.”

Its success has reinforced her belief in the need for programs that nurture girls and create a bond between them, without the pressure to “show off” for the boys, she says.

Fiona has since devised a program called “Power Girls” for her Grade 3/4 students at Baimbridge College in Hamilton, based on resources gathered while working for the Education Department.

“We ask them to develop their own image of what a Power Girl would be,” she says. “Girls can be passive and worried about hurting someone’s feelings. So we teach them how to be assertive without being aggressive, how to stand up for themselves and have a voice.”

The “F” word

Other educators are taking it one step further and introducing their students to the “F” word.

Teacher Anna Treasure’s “intuition” told her that the female students at Point Cook Secondary College were “starved” of information about feminism.

With the Year 12s away on a special study camp, and “teachers throwing up a whole lot of ideas for workshops they wanted to do”, Anna took the opportunity to trial a women’s studies program with small groups of Year 10/11 girls over three days.

The school’s 2009 student opinion survey had shown a negative self-perception among the Year 11 girls when it came to the differences between themselves and their male peers.

Anna says today’s celebrity-obsessed culture is pronounced at Point Cook, in an isolated corner of Melbourne’s west.

“It’s a new school in a new area — there’s nothing else here — so the playground becomes a kind of theatre, with everyone on show.”

While students study health and sexuality — and sometimes look at texts from a feminist perspective as part of English lessons — there is no dedicated gender studies program at the school.

In fact, South Australia is now the only state that offers Women’s Studies among its Year 12 elective subjects.

Anna drew on various resources to create her program but “pre-empted all of this (by saying) how much I love men,” she says. “I have five brothers, and male colleagues and a partner who are all great.”

She used psychologist Martin Seligman’s three primary conditions for happiness — feeling that you can “be yourself”; fulfilling work; and a strong relationship with a significant other — as a starting point to look at why each of these prerequisites was compromised for women of previous generations.

She also used material from the Miss G project, a Canadian gender studies organisation, to create a multiple-choice quiz and a timeline exercise. “When they had to work out which events happened a long time ago and what happened more recently, they flipped out!” Anna says. “They couldn’t believe that homosexuality was still considered a disease until the 1990s, or that pay disparity still exists.”

Her final activity was to present the girls with two images, one of a woman in a full-length burqha and one of women in a beauty pageant, and ask them to discuss “who was more free”.

She says the girls developed a whole new sense of history and their place in it. “So when they arc up about doing their work, it’s now in the context of women’s struggle for equal education!”

Where to for feminism?

Author Monica Dux isn’t worried that your average teenage girl is still wary of describing herself as a feminist.

How to give young women a new way of using the term was the central motive for her latest book, The Great Feminist Denial, co-authored with Zora Simic.

“I don’t think a 17-year-old girl needs to be calling herself a feminist,” says Dux. “If you educate 14–17 year old girls that ‘This is feminism’, it’s like leading a horse to water. Many of the challenges that will sharpen their sense of gender injustice still lie ahead.”

She believes that feminism has in many ways been the victim of its own success. “It’s easy to see how the marrying of the sexual revolution and increasing body obsession has diluted empower- ment messages and created this fallout of ‘raunch culture’.”

But if young women are given a sense of their legacy, they will be more likely to recognise the value of feminism later in life, she says.

“A feminist consciousness is often there; it’s just having an opportunity to articulate it. If you don’t have that awareness, when you come to certain moments in your life where you think something’s wrong or unequal, you’re not going to identify with feminism.”

When surveying young women, Dux and Simic found that most were alienated from feminism by distorted stereotypes created by its detractors, such as former PM John Howard. That makes it all the more important that feminist history now be part of the national curriculum, says Dux. “It is really important to educate young people about the massive impact that feminists have had on so many aspects of our lives — culturally, socially and politically. It’s not a marginal aspect of history; it’s about the way we all work and live.”

PB240014Girl Power

Enlighten Education is also urging girls to reclaim the feminist tag with its newest workshop, “Real Girl Power”.

Miller finds that while girls initially feel disconnected from feminism, their attitudes change once they realise there is diversity of appearance and opinion within the women’s movement.

“We need to bring it to this generation in a way that’s more palatable. They can still like fashion and boys; they can still shave their legs and be a feminist.” She says the media never portrays feminism in a positive light, so educators

have to demystify feminism and make it relevant. “The adolescent female brain is driven by emotion and impulse,” says Miller.

“You have to make them see that it matters; make them passionate about it. They get really charged up once they become informed about the history of feminism and the battles still being fought.”

Dux agrees: “We’ve just got to start claiming back the label, and I think standing up and arguing against all the misconceptions about feminists and feminism is one of the keys to achieving this.”

Girls in Trouble in a Post-Feminist World

Parents, teachers and all of us at Enlighten Education know in our hearts that girls and young women are in trouble and need our support. And the evidence is mounting to prove that we are right to be concerned.

A 19-year-long Scottish study published recently in the journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology showed that teenage girls are now the most depressed section of the population. The study, by Helen Sweeting, showed that girls were reporting mental disorders at a rate of 44%. More than a third felt “constantly under strain”. More than a quarter “felt they could not overcome their difficulties”. Between 1987 and 2006, the number of girls who “thought of themselves as worthless” trebled to 16%. Those who were so distressed they might need to be hospitalised rose threefold, to 18%.

And recent UK government research into 42,073 children between the ages of 10 and 15 concluded that:

The choices being made by teenage girls regarding diet, lifestyle and other health-related issues were so consistently damaging that they had become ‘a standalone group of the population’ requiring immediate intervention.

Amelia Hill, of London newspaper The Observer, reported on the research in her superb article After feminism: what are girls supposed to do? which I urge everyone to read.

Helen Sweeting, the author of the Scottish research, found it significant that her disturbing results came at a time of major upheavals in society — in Hill’s words, “the period in which girls began to outperform boys academically, and the obsession with celebrity culture and the pressure on younger and younger girls to become sexualised”.

Girls’ problems are caused by a combination of very modern problems, including the breakdown of the family, and the pressures of rampant consumerism and of educational expectations – the need, in short, to have things, look good and succeed all at the same time. Add to that the spread across society of increasingly cynical, individualistic values and beliefs, and you have a pretty toxic mix. — Helen Sweeting

For explanations, Hill turned to a number of experts, including Natasha Walter, author of the new book Living Dolls, The Return of Sexism:

Feminism’s own language of empowerment has been turned against it. The language of empowerment has been harnessed to confuse sexual liberation with sexual objectification. — Natasha Walter

I agree with Hill that girls are “growing up in an atmosphere of unapologetic crudity”. Stripping, she noted, “is widely cited as a method of empowerment”.

Girls feel pressured now in a way they never have been before to be thin, hyper-sexy, smart, glamorous, rich. And these expectations have created a “narcissism epidemic”. Respected American psychologist Jean Twenge studied almost 60 years’ worth of data on 37,000 American teenagers and found a staggering rise in the number of teens who score high on the narcissism personality index. And it is females who suffer the most from the depression and anxiety linked to narcissism, Hill noted.

The narcissist has huge expectations of themselves and their lives. Typically, they make predictions about what they can achieve that are unrealistic, for example in terms of academic grades and employment. They seek fame and status, and the achievement of the latter leads to materialism – money enables the brand labels and lavish lifestyle that are status symbols. — Jean Twenge

Other UK findings uncovered by Hill that make it impossible to deny that girls are in trouble include:

  • Hospital admissions for anorexia nervosa among teen girls have risen 80% in the last decade.
  • In the past year alone there has been a 50% rise in violent crime committed by young women.
  • One in three girls, and one in two boys, believe there are times when it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.

It is clear that the pressure girls feel to be more and to have more has grown to the point that they are struggling to cope. They need our support and understanding right now. 

Thank you to Sarah Casey for bringing Amelia Hill’s article to my attention.

Seeking positive alternatives for girls  

Enlighten Education is proud to be working with schools and communities who are seeking answers for girls. I have recently returned from working with a number of schools in Christchurch, NZ, and spoke about this positive initiative on New Zealand’s Breakfast program:

To watch this interview, click on this image. You will be directed to the URL.
To watch this interview, click on the link above. You will be directed to the URL.

Wilderness College Adelaide is to be applauded for launching their “Raising Amazing Girls” program:

As part of the growing momentum around Australia to address the problems caused by unrealistic media and marketing images of women and the pressure for girls to grow up early, an extensive program will be launched today by Wilderness School to equip girls, and their parents, with the tools to help them navigate the ‘tweenie’ years.

This will include a series of practical seminars, open to all parents, as well as an intensive program working directly with the students at the school on issues such as the sexualisation of girls, digital citizenship and cyber-bullying. I am thrilled to be leading this for Wilderness and will be presenting to all the girls in the school, and to their parent community, later this month.

In Sydney, I will be offering parents practical strategies on raising happy, confident teen girls at a workshop on 16 March at Castle Hill Library. Tickets can be purchased online.  

I’d love to hear how you are providing the girls you care for with the urgent help they need. Let’s share our ideas and turn things around for girls in Australia and New Zealand . . . and set an example for the rest of the world to follow.

The Voice of Iran, and of Women Everywhere

Like the rest of the world, I was sickened by the recent death of Neda Agha-Soltan, a young woman shot in the protests that followed the dubious election result in Iran. The 26-year-old university student was with her singing teacher at the time of her death. In Iran, women are forbidden to sing publicly, so already we know that Neda was a courageous woman. Because her name means “voice” in Farsi, soon after the mobile phone camera footage of her death was shared around the world, people began calling her “the voice of Iran.”

For Neda’s life not to have been lived and lost in vain, we should begin thinking of her as the voice of women everywhere.

She was described by her fiance and family as a woman who didn’t have much interest in politics, so her death is less about the election controversy and more a sign of women’s enduring strength and determination to stand up for what is right — no matter the repression and intimidation they face.

Even before Neda’s senseless death, I had been struck by the number of women, especially young women, who were brave enough to take to the streets in the Tehran protests. During the election campaign, Mousavi — the man the protestors believe was the true winner of the election — made a promise that he would get rid of laws discriminating against women, so it’s no wonder women have protested in record numbers. And there is an awful lot at stake for women in Iran. We’re talking about demands for basic rights that we in the West take for granted, like marital and financial equality — but we’re also talking about demands for an end to practices that seem simply bizarre and archaic to us: polygamy, the stoning of women and harassment by morality police who can punish women just for wearing fingernail polish.

(Photo by Hamed Saber, Tehran)

This picture of a woman taking part in a silent protest in Tehran a couple of days before Neda’s death is far more radical than most of us in the West might at first realise. No, the two-finger gesture isn’t an insult in Iran like it can be here. What’s outrageous is that her head covering is loose, she’s wearing makeup . . . and those fingernails she’s holding up in a victory sign? Oh, they’ve definitely been manicured. This is an ordinary woman, but this is also a brave woman.

In Iran and some other parts of the world, expressing feminist ideals can be literally a matter of life and death, while in Australia and the rest of the Western world, ‘feminism’ has almost become the new f-word, a word not to be spoken in polite company. I’ve heard too many conversations about gender start out ‘I’m not a feminist, but . . .’

Perhaps the women who came before us did such a good job of fighting for equality and respect that girls and young women here feel that there is little left to complain about. When our daughters grow up they will have the right to vote; they will inherit laws against gender discrimination and sexual harassment, and laws protecting a woman’s right to keep her job after having a baby. Believing that the work of feminism is complete, perhaps many young women feel that it is just an embarrassing throwback, a social dinosaur.

But the courage and strength of the women taking to the streets in Tehran should give us all pause for thought. Our reality here in the industrialised West is not the reality of all women. In too many parts of the world, women and girls are oppressed. Too many girls can’t get the same education as their brothers; they become child labour or child brides. In Haiti, says Amnesty International, the large number of girls who can’t afford schooling either go without an education or enter into exploitive relationships with men so they can pay the fees. In South Africa, women are especially at risk of HIV infection due to the high levels of sexual violence they face, and women in many countries lack protection from sexual assault, domestic violence and sex traffickers. In countries such as Iran and China, women who stand up for basic human rights are harassed or end up in prison.

Our sisters in other parts of the world are risking their lives to speak out, in the hope that their daughters will one day enjoy equal rights. When all this is still going on, how can we say that the time for feminism has passed?

The inequality women are battling against in Iran serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come in Australia and the debt we owe the feminists who struggled on our behalf.

The courage and strength we’ve seen on the streets of Tehran in recent weeks are like a challenge to us: will we take a moment to remember that these women’s struggle was once our struggle? Will we give them our support and do whatever we can to help their cause?

And finally, the protestors’ actions are an inspiration. Though we may have forgotten or overlooked it, the spirit of these women is within us all: a passion for justice and equality, a sense of self-respect and dignity, deep concern for the girls and women of the future, and a fighting spirit that won’t quit till fairness prevails.

Imagine what we could do if we tapped into these qualities. Imagine the world our daughters could create if we nurtured these qualities in them. For let’s not forget that even though it may seem that the major battles have been fought and won for women here, inequities still exist between the genders. Women’s pay in Australia still lags way behind men’s; we are still massively underrepresented at the upper levels of business; and on average the greatest burden of housework continues to fall to us no matter how hard we work outside the home. Meanwhile, too many girls and women will wake up tomorrow planning to starve themselves; too many will feel overly critical when they look in the mirror; too many will experience sexual or domestic violence.

There is still work to be done — here and across the globe — and I salute the women who are fighting the good fight today.

(Photo by Milad Avazbeigi)

There are a great number of organisations to get involved with that help women around the globe achieve the rights we all deserve, including:

Amnesty International researches, exposes and fights human rights violations worldwide. Check out their website for ways to take action against injustice.

Mahboba’s Promise is an Australian aid organisation that helps women and children in Afghanistan, which has the highest proportion of widows and orphans in the world and is one of the poorest countries. Amnesty International has noted that women living in poverty suffer the greatest human rights challenges.

Women for Women International helps rebuild the lives of women survivors of war in countries such as Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda and the Sudan. In war, women’s rights are often one of the first casualties.

Soroptimist International is an organisation of women in management and the professions working to advance the status and equal rights of women around the world.

The UN’s Say NO to Violence Against Women campaign, for which Nicole Kidman is a spokeswoman, is a global movement demanding that governments make it a priority to end violence against women.

 

Sisterhood – performance poem by Kate Wilson

The poem featured in this YouTube clip is written and performed by Kate Wilson.

Have your girls produced poems, songs or art that explores women’s issues? If so, I’d love to see these.

P.S As promised – big shout out to the hundreds of shiny teen girls I have worked with this past fortnight. I have been to Canberra, New Zealand, Wagga Wagga, Strathfield and Perth! A few of my fave snaps below.

LOVE, LIGHT AND LAUGHTER to all my Sisters!

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