In 2009, a choreographer from the television programme So you think you can dance said his routine involved ‘a bit of a peep show’ explaining, ‘They’re such hot looking girls, why wouldn’t I portray them as sex kittens?’ I then pulled the face that causes my teenaged daughter to exclaim, ‘I hate watching television with you!’ And because she was not interested to hear my speech on a soapbox, and because despite a ‘long history of advocating for social change, equality and the disadvantaged’, Bronwyn Pike (Minister for Education in Victoria) has not significantly mentioned the gender issue as part of her platform for Victorian education reform, I bring my concerns here to you.
Did the public express outrage at this blatant sexism? The show’s online opinion forum suggests, no, it did not. Would there have been a response had he said, ‘They’re so African-looking, why wouldn’t I portray them as American slaves?’
Surely we can’t compare the political and social awakening achieved by the civil rights movement in the United States with the ongoing struggle of women’s liberation and make it a concern of the Victorian Education Department? Can we?
I am here to tell you: yes we can.
The world has seen great leaders, public speakers and speechmakers whose words and deeds reformed government, business and the social life and led to the emancipation of millions. Every high school student will know the names of these brave human beings, these pioneers of liberation, these makers of world-changing speeches: Mary Lee; Vida Goldstein; Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
These names ring from our history books like those of other great pioneers of liberty: Abraham Lincoln; Nelson Mandela; Martin Luther-King. Don’t they?
Author Evelyn Johnson’s research into gender and education made the claim that non-patriarchal teaching methodology was ‘not yet available’ in 1995, despite twenty years of policy reform and though it no longer seems to be on the agenda, I don’t think it’s available yet.
Our education system is founded on openly chauvinistic principles and – despite the best efforts of many great educators, male and female – continues to operate under a thick layer of male subjectivism that has passed itself off as objectivity. Because of this, the narrative of women in history remains untold and the source of their invisibility largely unexamined – a symptom of a situation that continues to suffocate the globe and oppress human beings everywhere.
‘Sex kitten’ is on its own, a playful image. But connected to the invisible, untaught history of the subjugation of women by sexual oppression, it is not innocent at all.
Ancient Greeks and Romans enslaved women after conquering a city. Rape was a weapon of terror as German soldiers marched through Belgium in 1914; of revenge when the Russian army marched to Berlin in World War II; used by the Japanese in the notorious ‘comfort camps’: again when the Pakistani army battled Bangladesh; and used as a ‘standard operating procedure aimed at terrorising the population into submission’ by American GIs in Vietnam.
Accepting the 2004 Anti-Slavery Award, Ilguilas Weila said, ‘slavery is the most violent…inhuman and degrading alienation of the freedom of a human being.’ He also explained that most slaves are women.
In 2006 the then Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock announced that the government was committed to combating the crime of trafficking for sexual slavery in Australia. In 2009, economic journalist Kai Ryssdal reported:
By some estimates, slavery as a [global] industry is worth about $91 billion a year. Sex slaves represent about 4 percent of all slaves around the world. But they account for about 40 percent of the profits. As the global economy worsens so could the lives of those women and children.
These atrocities trace their very possibility to sexual objectivism: the tragic answer to the question, ‘why wouldn’t I portray them as sex kittens?’
I can’t express in any more powerful words how far indeed we are from a true women’s liberation than by these, spoken by Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1868 to the Women’s Suffrage Convention in Washington.
Though disenfranchised, we have few women in the best sense; we have simply so many reflections, varieties and dilutions of the masculine gender…To keep a foothold in society, woman must be as near like man as possible, reflect his ideas, opinions, virtues, motives, prejudices, and vices…She must look at everything from its dollar-and-cent point of view, or she is a mere romancer…And now man himself stands appalled at the results of his own excesses, and mourns in bitterness that falsehood, selfishness, and violence are the law of life.
Dale Spender asserts that if we take the sexism out of education there will be no curriculum left at all, which puts me in mind of Rudolf Steiner’s assertion that if we only spoke about what we really knew, a great silence would descend upon humanity.
What can be done? In the 2010 VCE curriculum, time and space has been found for the study of the American Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, and most young people are well versed in the developments of the Technological Revolution. I assert that while the words ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ and ‘emancipation’ do appear in the History component of the VCE Study Design, and teachers can choose to make women’s issues a focus, the Women’s Revolution is not taught rigorously enough and must take its place as a true revolution – and one which impacts on the whole human race. A revolution that falls under the definition put forward in the VCE History Study Design – encompassing ‘destruction and construction, dispossession and liberation…polaris[ing] society and unleashing civil war and counter-revolution’.
We must see it not as inconvenient and ‘precious’ to give our young men and women a rigorous historical context for the feminist perspective, but rather as an unquestionable necessity to redress the imbalance in our collected body of historical knowledge. A body of knowledge one presumes educators are passionate about.
I would love to conclude by quoting from the women who spoke at that great freedom march of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 – Daisy Bates or Pauli Murray or Dorothy Height or Diane Nash, but unfortunately those informed, educated activists, crucial to the movement and passionate to speak were not given permission by the leaders to do so.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!