Camden schoolgirls on frontline of fight against sexism call for feminism to be part of curriculum
PUBLISHED: 15:00 10 January 2014 | UPDATED: 16:50 10 January 2014
Feminism had become, until relatively recently, a dirty word, a label for women who hated men, had hairy armpits and burned their bras.
But the fight for equal rights along gender lines is suddenly in vogue again, and Camden's schoolgirls are signing up.
In at least three of the borough’s schools, teenagers have set up gender equality societies to raise awareness of women’s issues and to condemn the sexist “lad culture” prevalent among male students.
“I moved from a mixed school to a boys’ school, which was a bit of a culture shock,” said 18-year-old Anna Hill, a pupil at the private University College School (UCS) in Hampstead, which has girls in the sixth form only.
“I had never been to a school where people made rape jokes and then congratulated each other,” she said.
She is a fervent member of the school’s Gender and Politics Society, where around 20 pupils discuss topics such as the connotations of the word ‘b*tch’ and if rape can ever be funny.
While the female members of the society were united in answering the latter question with a firm ‘no’, most of the boys said rape jokes were often hilarious, though they should never be repeated in front of a victim.
“It’s not that bad at UCS though there are things to be working on,” Anna, of Angel, said. “There has definitely been an increase in awareness [of feminist issues].”
She thinks Camden’s students are getting more involved with feminist issues because of the influence of prominent feminists on social media, such as The Times columnist and Crouch End-er Caitlin Moran.
State secondary Camden School for Girls, in Sandall Road, Camden Town, has a prominent feminist society, whose past members successfully lobbied their nearest Tesco supermarket to remove “lads’ mags” from the shelves in 2012.
After last year’s reappearance of these magazines, which often show topless or scantily clad women on the front covers, the current members of the sixth-form Feminist Club are urging people to sign a petition to once again get the mags off the shelves at the Tesco branch in Camden Road.
“All girls of our age experience something that makes us feel uncomfortable, like comments on the street or wolf-whistling,” said Feminist Club co-leader Alida Haworth, 17, of Oakley Square, Camden Town. “It’s part of the everyday for every single girl I know.”
Joint leader Anna Pick, 17, of Savernake Road, Gospel Oak, thinks feminism should be part of the national curriculum, to be taught to both genders in their Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons.
“Sexism is ingrained in everyday life and we don’t even realise it sometimes,” she said. “Talking about it is fantastic and I think it would be really good if it were part of the curriculum.”
Helen Pike, headteacher of the independent all-girls South Hampstead High School, which also has a Feminist Society, said schoolgirls and women “were beginning to realise that less has been achieved than we previously thought”.
“It’s about the codification of women and girls and I think it’s also to do with being a teenage girl,” she said. “They’re very aware of the social pressures enforced by society.”
Camden School for Girls deputy headteacher Olivia Camillo said: “I certainly feel that part of the intrinsic ethos of the school is about empowering young people to observe, understand and question the society they live in and to stand up for injustices.
“Many of our girls feel that the term feminist has been somewhat maligned and that, because there are now so many successful women across a range of industries, it is viewed by some as a redundant movement.
“This is obviously not the case, and the Fem Club is particularly interested in engaging with and encouraging discussion, amongst girls and boys, about inequalities which still exist.
“We are very proud of our Fem group here at Camden, and it has become quite a tradition for the head boy in his Founder’s day speech to end by saying ‘I’m proud to call myself a Camden girl’.”
Mandy Watts, acting headteacher of all-girls grammar school Henrietta Barnett in Hampstead Garden Suburb, said: “[Feminism] is not a term that we tend to use explicitly in our general discussions with girls, mainly because we try to avoid using labels and stereotypes, and the term has, unfortunately, gained some negative associations from the contexts in which it was sometimes used in the past.
“However, we have a strong ethos of encouraging our students to find their voice in society, we want to empower them to be confident to take on new challenges, to think for themselves and to be willing to take risks without fearing failure, all of which we know from experience can be challenging for some girls.”