This week, at about 4am, I had an epiphany (of sorts). This is always a bad idea at 4am because by the time I’m ready to go back to sleep (after I’ve convinced the boss my idea is worthwhile, planned CPD and established a working party), it’s time to get up! Like many teachers, once I’m awake my head is full of work and things to do and I struggle to let go until I’ve thrashed out all kinds of nonsense and long-dead (or should be!) situations and conversations.
For many reasons (best left alone here) I have followed with a kind of detached, unsurprising interest the sexual exposés of a growing number of men in the public eye. The #MeToo campaign on Twitter was of personal interest to me because about ten years ago I found myself in an on-line discussion wherein at least 80% of the women claimed to have been sexually assaulted in some way – from being groped on a train, to actually having been raped at some stage in their lives. 80%! I found myself wondering how that would translate in ‘real life’ and so I began broaching the subject, carefully, with ‘real life’ women of my acquaintance – and the numbers were about the same. One of the main surprises was that many women my age had not considered their experiences as sexual assault – it just happened and they often blamed themselves: they were either drunk, or in a dark street late at night, or it was an uncle or step-father and they didn’t want to cause trouble in the family. At this point I would say to you than – yes I know it happens to men, but this is about women – if you feel you need to say ‘this happens to men as well’ please feel free to write a blog about it because yes, I know it’s not all men.
So, moving on from this I should give you some information about my situation. I lead on T&L in an non-maintained, special school for boys, all with ‘high functioning’ autism – although they present with some other issues as well, such as ADHD, behaviour, dyspraxia and dyslexia etc. All of our boys struggle profoundly with social mores and for the most part they take things very literally, often misjudging interactions unless discussions are clear and unambiguous. This can all be somewhat annoying/a minefield when these misjudgements are related to women and sometimes, it can be damned scary if you’re the woman receiving unwanted attention (this is obviously not just limited to men with autism, btw!). Boys with autism can find rejection confusing, distressing and they find it very difficult to cope as mainly they lack the depth of perception or the emotional wherewithal necessary to negotiate interactions, especially with the opposite sex.
One boy had his entire holiday ruined [and that of his family] when a young woman on a plane, who had smiled at him, did not phone him [as he expected her to] after he gave her his phone number. Another, when moving on to college, was unable to cope with the mixed messages he felt he was getting from a female student and he is now having to be taught separately and was accused of stalking. A third student became most upset and anxious when he had to be disabused of the misconception that a waitress would appreciate the many Christmas gifts he had bought her, again, seeing an interest that wasn’t there.
But none of this is as simple as being just autism related, the #MeToo and these difficulties with boundaries are also evidenced by neurotypical men – if they have problems discriminating between flirting and friendliness, what chance do our boys have!
So, here’s the thing: I have long worked with my Y8 students regarding the range of cultural influences brought by immigration to the British Isles over time. They have researched and presented information to the class about how we have most benefited as a nation, from immigration (Roman roads, sanitation, government etc). I was looking at the next stage of my planning and we will be reading texts which are supposed to reflect our literary culture: Keats, Blake, Tennyson, Shakespeare. As I was looking at the list I’d chosen I found myself asking, ‘where are the women in this history of our British Isles – where are the female 19thC poets?’ I then wondered about the curriculum as a whole: How many women are referenced in science, in history, in art, in computing? What about French or music – and so on. Are they ever noted or highlighted for their contributions? Why not? And, more importantly, if we don’t highlight the fact that there were many discoveries made by female scientists, many of whom had their work dismissed and appropriated by their male bosses, who will highlight it? What message are we sending to our boys when we allow them, albeit subliminally, to see women as merely appendages, or commodities? Or Daily Mail sidebar fodder?
Instead, what about the ‘Hidden Figures’ at NASA? The female codebreakers at Bletchley Park? The female spies in wartime? The female poets though time whose work was attributed to ‘Anon’? Would this information not give our boys a fuller, richer, healthier image of women?
This is my task now, and it starts with me: how can I make sure I present a fuller history of women’s contributions in my subject and how can I encourage my (mostly male) colleagues to ‘buy in’ to this.
This is my ‘project’ – I hope it makes sense (that’s how a woman tends to introduce an idea – I hope it’s ok, I hope you don’t mind, does that make sense? As an ex student noted, I’m not a fully fledged FeminNazi – yet! But I may embrace it in time).
Please bear with me – and, having followed so many of you on Twitter for so many years, I would really appreciate your input!