Published in the Fall 2006 issue • Features
If The Miss G__ Project for Equity in Education gets its way, high school as we know it will be radically transformed
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Their goal is not a new one. Earlier generations of women have introduced women’s studies into high school curricula and struggled to keep it there. In an essay titled “The Story of An Orphaned Curriculum,” Martha Colquhoun chronicles the demise of women’s studies in Manitoba high schools at the end of the 1970s. Though there were only six schools with formal women’s studies courses, material from those courses was used to develop innovative units in language arts, literature and social studies in other schools. Colquhoun’s course, “Women Now — Women Then,” taught students about Nellie McClung, Margaret Laurence and Gabrielle Roy, and covered the work of Germaine Greer, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood and Adrienne Rich. At the time, the province offered grants for innovative curriculum development and even employed a women’s studies consultant. The conservative political shift in the 1980s, along with the advancement of feminist teachers into positions that forced them to leave their courses behind, meant the end of women’s studies in Manitoba. Miss G__ members have read up on what came before them and are determined to build on the work of previous generations of feminists to introduce a course that is long-lasting and isn’t snuck out of the curriculum when the government changes.
The name Miss G__ has historical significance to the group’s cause. In 1873, Edward H. Clarke, a Harvard professor of medicine, published a book titled Sex in Education, Or, a Fair Chance for Girls, in which he described the untimely death of one Miss G, a nameless woman and a top university student who died a few years after graduating. After conducting a post-mortem, Clarke concluded that women did not have the mental capacity to be educated, as it interfered with their primary biological function: reproduction. In other words, Clarke believed Miss G died because she was too darn smart, and her female body couldn’t handle the strain of juggling both intellectual work and reproductive duties. He warned that women who were educated risked developing uterine disease, hysteria, nerve pain and other “derangements of the nervous system.” Rawal, Ghabrial, Mohan and Shkordoff, all well-educated and healthy women themselves, found this story tragic and laughable. They adopted the name Miss G__ as a symbol of how women have been marginalized in education systems and, often, are invisible in their own stories.
The story of The Miss G__ project began in February 2005. Realizing that reaching their goal could take years, the women started with small steps. They scribbled down some ideas and began asking women they knew for advice, turning to administrators and professors at their university, slowly building contacts and a network and figuring out what to do next. At first they feared they weren’t “expert” enough to speak out. “I remember saying, ‘We can’t do any of this stuff until we know everything about the subject,’” says Rawal. “I was really scared. I thought, ‘We need facts!’” But there was no time to learn everything about women’s studies, politics and the education system. The women learned to ask for help from others who were well-versed in these topics, and picked up expertise as they went.
In May, Miss G__ held its first workshop at Social Justice Now!, a conference organized for and by London, Ontario-area high school students. These workshops became an important part of the project and, in a little over a year, the group had spoken to hundreds of students across Ontario. “If women’s studies courses get into schools but no students take them because they don’t know what it is or because they’re scared of the word ‘woman,’ that’s a problem,” explains Rawal. As the Miss G__ proposal states, “These students, as we’ve discovered in our own conversations with them, maintain, at best, vague and, at worst, distorted images of feminism and the possibilities for true female participation in their communities.” With the input of people in teachers’ colleges, the group designed a workshop that introduces some of the ideas behind a women’s studies course and explores how gender affects high-school politics and classroom life. Workshops are wide-ranging and often touch on homophobia and racism.
Demystifying the word “feminist” comes with the territory. “Whenever you engage with something like this, there comes a responsibility to educate people in daily life,” says Ghabrial. That responsibility has been wholeheartedly embraced by the women of Miss G__, who often wear “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts to events and whose spunky personalities challenge the misconception that feminists don’t have a sense of humour.
Throughout the year, the group built support networks of young women across Ontario. They created an e-mail list to dispatch funny, witty messages to keep Miss G__ fans up-to-date and put together leaflets and information sheets that were clear, to-the-point and always bore the Miss G__ logo: a young woman with a hip hairdo swept across her forehead, square-shaped glasses and a “don’t mess with me” stare. Ten Miss G__ Chapters have been established across the province, including Windsor/Chatham, Kitchener-Waterloo, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Kingston. Holly Kent-Chrishop, a student at the University of Guelph, heard about Miss G__ from a feminist Livejournal group and decided to organize a local chapter. “It was hard to identify as a feminist in high school, even in first- and second-year university,” she says, noting that women’s studies is a good way to educate teens about feminism and will give young women the confidence to be loud and proud about their beliefs.