‘Feminist collective’ strategy in schools
Rebecca Urban, The Australian, 26 April 2017
Teachers are being encouraged to develop “feminist collectives” at schools to counter “everyday sexism”, as part of a Victorian government-backed bid to tackle domestic violence through the schoolyard.
Fightback, a feminist-based teaching guide that paints a grim “white, male privilege” picture of gender inequality in Australia, is promoted within the Victorian government’s $21 million Respectful Relationships project that has been rolled out to more than 120 schools across the state, with hundreds more to follow.
The resource’s lead author, Fitzroy High School teacher Briony O’Keeffe, has recently conducted professional development workshops, including one last month at Victoria University, advising teachers on building feminist collectives within their schools.
Published in 2014, Fightback is aimed at educating secondary school students about “negative attitudes towards gender equality that contribute to high rates of sexism and discrimination and ultimately … violence against women”.
Similar to the contentious Respectful Relationships curriculum, the guide introduces students to the concept of “privilege” as some groups having advantages over others that are not earned but assigned at birth.
“Being born white in Australia, you have advantages — privileges — that are not necessary assigned to those who are seen to be non-white,” it says.
“By being born male you have advantages … that you may not approve of or think you are entitled to, but that you gain anyway because of your status as male.”
To demonstrate the notion of privilege, a suggested classroom activity asks students to assume a range of different identities, such as a male CEO, stay-at-home mother, Muslim woman and indigenous transgender male. Students are then asked to consider how various statements might apply to them, such as: “I feel safe walking alone at night”; “It is unlikely I will lose my career by having children”; and “I feel confident ordinary language will always include my sex — example ‘mankind’, ‘all men are created equal’, ‘chairman’, ‘postman’.”
Education critics have taken issue with the guide — developed with input from the Fitzroy High School Feminist Collective, which started in 2013 as an elective class at the school — arguing that it simplifies the causes of domestic violence and depicts men as violent misogynists.
Australian Catholic University senior research fellow Kevin Donnelly, a critic of the Respectful Relationships curriculum, said the material presented students with information from a feminist perspective only.
“There’s been no real attempt to inject any sort of nuance into the material or to consider how boys might receive it,” Dr Donnelly said.
“As the royal commission told us, 25 per cent of domestic violence victims are men, men die earlier than women and young men have greater rates of youth suicide and self-harm.
“We shouldn’t be reinforcing these tired old stereotypes and simplifying the issue. It’s potentially very damaging.”
The guide acknowledges that the focus on violence perpetrated by men against women had the potential to make men feel targeted, acknowledging that “not all men” commit violent acts, but it dismisses the concept of “reverse sexism” and proposes an exercise to debunk it.
Centre for Independent Studies senior research fellow Jeremy Sammut said it was worrying schools were becoming places of “political re-education in post- structural identity politics”, ultimately undermining the Australian egalitarian tradition.
“To not treat people as individuals, but to treat them as numbers of a victim group is quite socially destructive,” he said.
Fitzroy High principal Pauline Rice, however, defended Fightback, which she was “all about encouraging students to think about the expectations and limitations placed on people because of their gender and what that can mean for people in their life.”
Liberal education spokesman Nick Wakeling attacked the Labor government for deploying “insidious political ideologies” in schools at the cost of education basics: “What young boys need are the skills for lifelong learning that leads to meaningful employment, not … judgment and social stigmatisation.”
State Education Minister James Merlino said the program was designed to help young people deal with a range of challenges. “Every school is free to use whichever additional resources like this one they deem appropriate,” he said.