One of my favourite moments this academic year saw a mixed group of Sixth Formers address the whole school on the issue of period poverty. The aim was to raise awareness—and much-needed funds. As one of the boys pointed out, we might think that period poverty is a Third World issue, but one in ten girls in the UK cannot afford adequate sanitary protection. One or two people expressed surprise that boys might be speaking about this issue. ‘Why wouldn’t they?’ one of the (male) campaigners said. ‘It’s a global issue, and in 2019 boys can talk about periods without blushing.’
This week, the Government has pledged a paltry £2m to help end Period Poverty by 2030. The ladies of Magdalen College School’s FemSoc were scathing about this. ‘We raised £750 in one week in one school for She for She,’ they pointed out. ‘This is under £200,000 a year to help the whole world!’
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #balanceforbetter. If you are campaigning for gender balance, you might not think that Magdalen College School is the ideal place to be. After all, just over a third of our Sixth Formers is female, and the rest of the school is sexed male at birth. So I asked the group of girls who are organising today’s FemSoc debate what gender balance and equality means to them, and whether being at MCS has altered their sense of themselves as feminists. The answers were surprising.
Although our FemSoc is keen for boys to understand the differences, and even challenges, that some girls face in the nature of being female, they are by no means biological essentialists. For them, the things that unite women with men are more profound than the issues that potentially divide. The Sixth Form boy who raised thousands last year to fund a girls’ orphanage in the Sudan—isn’t he a feminist? The girls I spoke with are liberal feminists, and they recognise that the intersection of class and race is vital. They are aware that they speak from a relative global position of enormous privilege—a view expressed forcefully by Izzy, who was General Secretary of our Model UN Conference last weekend and who invited an old girl of South Hampstead High School, Olivia Selbie, to speak about her work for the United Nations in Afghanistan in clearing land mines.
Are the boys sceptical about FemSoc? Some are, the girls say—though some boys do attend. FemSoc is adamant that the society exists as a forum for debate and education rather than as a vehicle for protest-- and an unintended consequence of this stance is that it helps win over those few boys who want to know why there isn’t a MenSoc.
Some of the FemSoc Committee attended all-girls’ schools before they attended MCS. Had joining boys who had mostly been educated in a single-sex male environment ‘radicalised’ them as feminists, I wondered? They said they were now more aware of themselves as individual women now that there were boys around, and they also felt that the differences between the sexes which are posited by some educational theorists were vastly overstated. There had been, one said, pressure on them to achieve ‘for the sake of all women.’ Another applauded the growth of ‘Women in STEM,’ and wished there would be a successful ‘Women in Modern Languages’ initiative. Come to think of it, a successful ‘Anyone in Modern Languages’ initiative would be timely, and much more in keeping with the feminist philosophy of the individuals of both sexes and various genders who together make up a globally aware FemSoC at MCS…..