Politics

‘Women’s studies’ class in Alberta elementary school stirs controversy

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Image: The Westlock News

New class in a central Alberta school raises concerns about the messages portrayed to young girls

By Sarah Do Couto

Despite the proclaimed good intentions of the new women’s studies course at an Alberta elementary school, a women’s studies professor at the University of Western Ontario said she believes the class is fundamentally detrimental to students. The course, outlined in the Pembina Hills Public School newsletter, teaches students “self-improvement techniques,” some of which include choosing complimentary clothing for one’s body type, online shopping and nail care.

Michelle Savoie, a teacher at Eleanor Hall School in Clyde, Alta., created the program for students in Grades 6 through 9. The course launched Feb. 1 and is open to both male and female students, with 25 girls already enrolled. “I want to teach the girls to be confident, strong, and independent leaders through the lens of the development of gender roles,” Savoie said in a news release from Pembina Hills.

The women’s studies course has been met with a great deal of criticism. Sue Huff, executive director of the Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta, said she was surprised that a program driven toward young women would be so focused on appearances.

“I thought we’d grown a bit more,” Huff said in an email to Global News. “Girls that age are often very preoccupied with their body shape and often rather harshly self-critical.”

Assistant superintendent of the Pembina Hills School Division David Garbutt said the school will be re-evaluating the course and that “all problematic or offensive components must be changed.”

“The goal here, the real aim, is to help students navigate adolescence and keep their self-image and self-esteem intact,” Garbutt told CBC Edmonton AM.

Samantha Brennan, a professor for the department of women’s studies and feminist research at Western University, said there are obvious problems with the curriculum.

“There are girls who aren’t going to match what the norms are for their gender,” she said. “Girls who aren’t going to be interested in picking the best online outfit or choosing the right hairstyle.”

Brennan said placing so much attention on outward appearance can be harmful to the development of young girls. In an interview, Brennan said she was concerned that the course’s focus on superficial beauty would target girls’ insecurities and pressure them to feel the need to conform to the course’s version of ‘perfect’ in order to feel accepted.

Savoie said lessons on appearance are not meant to provoke insecurity. Rather, she said these lessons are intended to prepare girls by exposing them to messages they may face in the future. “I hope the girls will learn to be supportive of each other and gain confidence and self-esteem as they discover who they are and who they want to be,” she said.

The Pembina Hills website said the class will learn about table settings, dinner party behaviour and polite conversation in preparation for a trip to a local high school. Brennan said she believes those sorts of skills should be learned in a business etiquette course, rather than a women’s studies class.

“Some of these lessons should be taught to everybody, it’s not gendered,” Brennan said. While the focus on appearance does not belong in any modern-day women’s studies course, Brennan said she does see some value in the program.

“There’s a lot of good intention there,” she said. “It is important to start talking to young girls, particularly those who may not have role models at home or may not have much understanding of the kinds of things women do around the world.”

Brennan said she wants the women’s studies course to expand its curriculum to include the history of feminism and discuss the different cultures of women from around the world.

“I’ve met young girls who don’t know how recent women’s voting is,” Brennan said, adding that she is often upset when young women perceive feminists as “outrageous.”

She said she hopes that a course like the one at Eleanor Hall School will also try to educate students about feminism in both the past and present day. If the course content were to be changed and restructured, Brennan said she believes the class could be a good introduction to women’s studies.

“As a university professor, I would like the high school and elementary school courses that people take to actually match what we teach at university,” she said. “Modern women’s studies courses also place a lot of attention on intersectionality. To understand justice, you have to pay attention not just to gender, but also race, sexual orientation and class.”

Education minister David Eggen also spoke about the Eleanor Hall School women’s studies class. In an emailed statement to the CBC, Eggen said gender equality has always been a priority to the Alberta government. “I understand the concerns being raised about the content of this course,” Eggen wrote. “Alberta Education and representatives from my office are in contact with the school board and will be seeking changes to this course immediately.”

Amid the wave of online criticism, Eleanor Hall School and Michelle Savoie have been encouraged to change the curriculum to reflect a modern women’s studies course.

Brennan said she ultimately hopes for a shift away from enforcing traditional gender roles and more of an emphasis on the empowerment of young women.

Updated: April 10, 2017 at 8:51 p.m.

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