By its very nature, feminism studies what feminists perceive to be a male-dominated society where historically girls and women have been ‘kept in their place’ while men have dominated areas such as politics, education, the military etc. How has feminism impacted education and schooling?
In the past girls have academically underachieved. At present girls are achieving better than boys if GCSE results are used as the criteria for success. Before the National Curriculum, it was not unusual for girls to pick subjects that prepared them for their futures as mothers and housewives. Cookery or Home Economics were seen as the subjects that many girls should follow whereas for some science was irrelevant.
Feminists believe society is male dominated –in other words it is a patriarchy. Feminists also believe that society is based on conflict between the sexes. They believe that women have historically been disadvantaged in society and that men historically have had more power than women. Feminists believe this is wrong and needs changing. There are many different feminist theories but they all share things in common – they look at the differences in society between men and women and try to see how these problems could be solved. Feminists believe that education is an agent of secondary socialisation that helps to enforce patriarchy. They look at society on a MACRO scale. They want to generalise their ideas about males and females to the whole of society.
Liberal feminism: Liberal feminists are the feminists who believe that the best way to fight patriarchal systems is by establishing legislation to fight discrimination. e.g. the right for some women to vote in 1918 and finally all women to vote in 1928 were liberal feminist approaches. The proposed and failed Equal Rights Amendment of the early 1980s was also a liberal feminist approach. This school of thought believes women would achieve better equality if they were just more visible in the current social structure. Liberal feminists believe changes in equal opportunities and educational policies, e.g. the National Curriculum, will end patriarchy.
Socialist/Marxist Feminism: These feminists believe that it is the gendered division of labour that contributes to women’s inequality. The fact that men have historically been paid more and get higher position in companies plays a big part. A Socialist/Marxist feminist would point out the fact that the majority of people who stay at home to raise children and take care of the home are women. A Marxist feminist believes that women are oppressed based on gender and class inequalities.
Multicultural/Women-of-Colour Feminism: These feminists believe that the traditional schools of feminist thought have been created by middle-class white women. They did not recognize that women-of-colour may also be oppressed based on racial inequalities. This school of thought argues for separate feminist thoughts like “womanism” (for African-American women, and also separate movements for Latina feminists, Native American feminists, etc.)
Radical Feminism: Radical feminists believe that the biggest oppression at work in our society is based on gender. Some believe a married woman can’t be a feminist or that straight women can’t be feminist. All-in-all it comes down to the argument that any dependence on men will equal the oppression of women. Although not all radical feminists are lesbians, this is the school of thought that has been influenced by a lot of lesbian separatist groups. Radical feminists believe patriarchy will only end when women are freed from the physical and emotional violence inflicted by men in the classroom and the playground.
Many feminists believe that women are being suppressed by a male-dominated society both in education and also in later life. They argue that the curriculum is more based around traditionally male-dominated subjects. Thus it sets up men more than women for further education or more prosperous work opportunities. Coupled with this is the stereotypical view of a woman’s part in society – of becoming housewives, marrying early and having children. Feminists argue that this contributes to the suppression put on women by the male-run society.
Sociologists Heaton and Lawson (1996) argue that the ‘hidden’ curriculum is a major source of gender socialisation within schools. They believe that schools seemed to show or have: text books with modern family culture and where children are taught from an early age that males are dominant within the family;various subjects are aimed at a certain gender group, for example Food Technology would be aimed at females, leading on to the typical role of females doing housework and cooking; sports in schools are very much male and female dominated within the education system, with boys playing rugby and cricket while girls play netball and rounders. It could be seen that the majority of teachers are female, but that the senior management positions are mainly male-dominated, although this is not the case in some schools.
The basic assumption shared by feminists is that the gender of divisions in society operate to the disadvantage of women. The process of gender socialisation usually encourages traditional gender roles which reinforce and justify male dominance. Feminists have shown that the so called natural differences between men and women are not true. Women are perfectly capable of building a successful career as men are. Feminists have helped transform many of our assumptions on gender. Women no longer feel their only goal in life is marriage and children. In 1976 Sharpe interviewed girls regarding their aspirations in life. They put when love and marriage as their top priorities in life with a career at the bottom. Twenty years later, she found that a job and career were top of the list for girls with marriage and children at the bottom.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex