I had a stand-out lesson this week. One of those lessons that grows arms and legs, wings and tentacles.
It began will a simple question scrawled on the board: Are you a feminist?
I teach in a co-ed secondary school, so the conversation was always going to be colourful, but I didn’t quite expect what was about to happen.
Let me first set the scene: I have an even split of girls and boys in my group of thirty, all around 15 years old.
It’s first lesson Wednesday morning. It’s cold – a lot of the kids still have their coats on.
Students can be reluctant to respond to such questions, particularly first thing, so I ask them to write on post-it notes.
I move around collecting them, totting up each response and each respondent. A perfect pattern emerges of ‘Yes’ answers and ‘No’ answers.
All Yes answers? Girls.
All No answers? Boys.
We form a circle and I take out my talking tool, my prized bunny rabbit, to start our discussion.
It’s amazing how candid students become when you strip away their tables and chairs.
Daniel is first to contribute. He puts his hand up and I throw him the rabbit.
He’s typical for his age. Shaved head, skinny tracksuit pants with bare ankles, an earring, baby-pink hoody.
“Why would I call myself a feminist? They hate men, like.”
He goes on, sounding more considered than I first expect, “I mean, I like girls, I want things to be fair, but I don’t like feminazis.”
There’s a pause in the room. Another three or four male students add to Daniel’s point.
“It’s a stupid word.”
“Why can’t they be called ‘equalists’?”
“Why should I have to label myself anything?”
I’ve heard these concerns before and I have answers to them, but it’s not my place to pitch in, not yet anyway.
Thankfully, Amy is compelled to break the wave of male criticism. She calls for the bunny.
But that’s not what feminism is. Feminism means you believe in equal rights. If you are not a feminist, you are sexist. Plain and simple.
Daniel, sitting next to her, bristles.
“I believe in equal rights. I’m not sexist but I’m not going to call myself a feminist.”
Amy is not for turning. Her eyes are sharp, unflinching.
“But I am telling you and the dictionary tells you that it means equal rights.
"With that understood, why can’t you say you’re a feminist and make it clear what you mean by that?”
At this point I approach the board. I erase the word feminist. I replace it with racist. The classroom reels.
“That is completely different,” Daniel bleats.
“Isn’t it also about equal rights?” I ask, innocently. “Isn’t that what Amy’s established?”
The general response is one of disapproval and disgust.
I find my seat.
Amy takes over: “And another thing, here we are talking about feminism and I am the only female speaking. Why is that? Why am I the only one speaking?”
Emboldened, a very quiet girl called Rachel clears her throat in the back.
Daniel calls out, “Hey, wait a second, yer wan wants to say something.”
The escalation happens before I have time to turn around.
“‘Yer wan?’” Rachel repeats back at him. “‘Yer wan.’ I have been in your class for three years!
This moment seems pivotal for us all. Amy is joined by another girl now.
Don’t you — you boys — don’t you realise that saying you’re a feminist is important because it would mean things are really different now? They really won’t change otherwise.
Without doubt, this simple question has unlocked something.
I’m beginning to realise we’re handling something potentially explosive.
Just as Daniel calls for the talking tool, we’re thankfully saved by the bell.
Wearily, I place the bunny back on the shelf and we all make our way to the next lesson.
So…what’s this all about? Is it just the label ‘feminist’ that bothers these boys or is there a more complex resistance at play, deeply rooted in their psyche?
Why are they unwilling to say they’re feminists, a word defined by a commitment to equal rights?
What is it about the word that bothers them? The ‘fem’ part?
The associations they have with other feminists? Amy is spot on in saying that man-hating is not feminism.
But by the end of the lesson, not one boy had changed his mind or conceded any ground.
It’s very possible that these boys are feminist in behaviour and attitude, in what counts, and it’s genuinely this label that bothers them.
But they don’t acquire label aversions in other aspects of their lives.
They label themselves vegetarian, carnivore, socialist, capitalist, Liverpool fans, ‘woke’. Just not feminist.
Whatever way you look at it, I’m in a classroom where all boys are pulling one way and all girls the other.
As their teacher, I need to figure out where to take this, what to do next.
How do I get these boys to feel less threatened by the topic and less hostile towards girls like Amy?
How do I get more girls to speak up and more boys to listen?
Amy’s right, we do need boys and men to help change things for women.
Maybe next week I’ll lead with ‘Is feminism needed anymore?’
And let the bunny take it from there.