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Catholic School and Feminism

A few days ago I came across this article via Shameless about an officer and  representative of the Toronto Police Service (TPS) who, at a campus safety information session held at York University’s  Osgoode Hall, advised women to not to dress like “sluts” in order to avoid  sexual assault. I don’t think I have to outline why such (il) logic (especially when made by someone like a police officer) is not only offensive but extremely problematic.  And while I found the story disheartening, it also reminded of another TPS gaffe that occurred while I was in high school.

I attended an all girls’ Catholic high school located in a suburb just outside of downtown Toronto. I remember once hearing, from my Civics teacher, about an assembly that the school had organized involving two police officers, one man and one woman. They came to my school to speak to the senior grades ( I believe it was grade 11 and 12) about careers in the TPS.  At some point, the issue of sexism and sexual harassment in the force was brought up by a student and the policewoman responded by saying something like, its a man’s world and women have to make the adjustment in order to live and work in it. In other words, yes there is sexism in the force, but tough. As a lady you should learn to deal with it, and if you can’t, maybe you should find some other line of work. Well, many of the students and faculty in attendance were more than a little shocked by the answer, and a few of the staff (I think one of them was my Civics teacher) decided to complain both to the officer who had made the comment and whoever had organized the assembly. They felt that the policewoman’s remark perpetuated some pretty nasty myths about sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. Namely that sexual harassment is something that those on the receiving end, particularly women, should tolerate and that it is to be expected, because what else could you expect when women and men are work in the same environment.

Whatever came of those complaints, I never found out, but that story has stayed with me for so long, in large part, for two main reasons. One, some girl felt comfortable enough in an environment composed of cops, teachers, staff, possibly parents (I believe that every once in awhile parents were allowed to drop in on assemblies when we had someone interesting coming to speak) and her peers,  to address an issue like sexism and sexual harassment openly without fear of being reprimanded or shushed for broaching what can  be an uncomfortable topic. Secondly, many of the students and staff who had attended the assembly not only recognized that the officer’s response was inappropriate, but that it was unequivocally sexist, and a good number of the faculty in attendance felt strongly enough about it to complain.

While mulling over the incident and surfing the net, I stumbled upon two blog posts that helped me pinpoint a third reason why this incident has had the impact that it has on me. The first was a guest post from G.D. of PostBourgie at Feministe.us, and the second was the article that inspired G.D.’s post by Byron Hurt over at The Root.

Like the authors, I did not grow up in an explicitly (by “explicitly” I mean no one in my household identified as feminist or expressed any sort of solidarity with any kind of feminist movement openly, besides me of course)  feminist household, and it is in this sense that my home life and the life I lived at school were similar (though I would still argue that my mother, who has never identified herself as a feminist, provided me with a feminist upbringing anyways, but that’s another post). There weren’t any women’s studies courses offered at my high school (or any other high school, Catholic or public, meaning non-parochial in this case, for that matter), and as students  we were rarely openly encouraged to interpret what was being taught to us through any sort of feminist  perspective, and yet my experiences during those years has been what has  pushed to embrace feminism and gender equality activism.

I loved high school, especially my high school. I was maybe the only girl I knew who had actually chosen to go to my school because it offered a single sex education. The school itself is located on top of a hill in this beautiful Gothic revival building (with crumbling interiors) attached to an abbey where a small number of elderly and retired nuns lived. It was also connected to a small chapel and garden that opened up onto a lawn where sometimes, during class hours, if you were to look out your classroom window you could catch a few of the sisters playing golf or getting some fresh air. The school used to be private before going public (meaning mostly government funded) at some point during the 80s (?), and had cultivated a reputation for academic rigor that was reinforced in its course offerings. This meant that  only courses  that were thought to  prepare us for university, were offered. Providing girls with a quality education was a mandate that the faculty took very seriously, and as a result,  we, as young women, never felt any pressure to dumb ourselves down or not to raise our hands or were made to feel guilty or “unfeminine” for being too bossy or ambitious or even loud.  In fact we were often encouraged to do or be precisely the opposite. (Believe me, I speak from experience, I was plenty loud and sort of bossy throughout high school.). It was an environment that encouraged us to speak out for ourselves, and on behalf of our beliefs even if they contradicted (up to a point) what we were being taught.

And so despite rarely, if ever, broaching the subject of feminism, my school was able to create an environment where a student could, in front of friends, peers and teachers address a feminist issue such as sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace to a pair of cops, and know that at least if any problems should arise as a result, a good number of the faculty present would have her back.  This is not to say that there weren’t problems, there were many. The education I received was often flawed, sometimes harmful and in some areas lacking all together (For instance, even though our sex ed wasn’t abstinence only per se, we were not given an education on contraceptives or sex really. I remember us watching a lot of videos about giving birth.). And there were times (and I won’t get into them here) when I wasn’t sure if the pros of attending a religious school entirely outweighed the cons. In fact, I can think of many instances when they didn’t. But the feeling that I was entitled to be heard and to speak and to participate when compelled to, proved to be invaluable when I transitioned from the close knit community environment of my high school to a larger much more alienating institution like a university, where educators and administrators did not always seem to be as invested in the academic and personal (and I guess by extension, spiritual) success of their students. This feeling of entitlement also helped pushed me to want to succeed academically for my own reasons. It made me feel like I, and the young women I went to school with, deserved to. For me, there was something so fundamentally feminist about that, that I am positive  it was one of  the factors that made me want to explore further what being a feminist means both personally and academically.

Update! Over at Shameless ,Emmy Woolley has posted an interview she conducted with Sonya Barnett, the co-founder of SlutWalk. Slutwalk  was an event organized in response to the sexist comments made by a TPS officer at a campus safety event held recently at Osgoode Hall. To learn more about it click here.



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