Using language to #PressforProgress

It began in 1910. Over one hundred women from seventeen different countries around the world agreed to meet in Copenhagen for what would be the second ever International Conference of Working Women. Numerous issues were discussed and debated, from universal suffrage to women’s pay. One woman, by the name of Clara Zetkin, brought forward the proposal for a global day for women, in which all women around the world should celebrate their contributions in unison, and push for their respective demands. The proposal was unanimously agreed upon. The next year, over one million men and women participated in rallies and campaigns to fight for “women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination”. International Women’s Day had begun.

But it would take another sixty-five years before International Women’s Day became what it is today: a truly global observance, officially institutionalised and endorsed by the United Nations. Growing far beyond what Clara Zetkin and the Conference of Working Women could have ever envisioned, International Women’s Day is now one of the most significant events on the calendar, with a massive presence on social media. Indeed, since 1996, the UN have made sure to help drive each year’s celebration with an annual theme, which has recently taken the form of some very catchy hashtags. After being encouraged to #BeBoldforChange in 2017, this year we have all been instructed to #PressforProgress, when it comes to gender parity.

With this in mind, I’ve been thinking about how we can #PressforProgress when we teach students to use new language and read new stories. After doing some research, I discovered some statistics that were really quite disheartening. Recently, for example, a study of over 100,000 novels dating from 1780 to 2007 found a “fairly stunning decline” in the number of female characters and female writers from 1800 to 1960. Even today, the report says, “men remain – on average, as a group – remarkably resistant to giving women more than a third of the character-space in their stories.”

In an attempt to reinvigorate myself, I turned – as I always do – to Toni Morrison, one of the world’s most important female writers, and my predominant literary inspiration. I listened to her Nobel Prize speech from 1993, in which she discusses language as “a living thing over which one has control” and as “an act with consequences.” She claims that language dies when it becomes oppressive and “unyielding”, when it cannot “form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences”. Yet, on the other hand, “the vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers.”

In this sense, I realised that as teachers of language and story, it is part of our job to ensure that language continues to live for all our students. As children’s laureate Lauren Child says, “If boys get the starring roles in books – both as the good and bad protagonists – and the girls are the sidekicks, it confirms that’s how the world is and how it should be. It’s very hard to feel equal then.” If we are showing our students that language can only be used to create specific types of male-dominated stories, then the language starts to feel narrow, unyielding, dead.

But by sharing stories that depict the actual, imagined and possible lives of complex women and girls, we can help young females to see the power and life behind what words can do. And the desire for these sorts of stories is clearly very strong. After becoming the most successful crowd-funded children’s book of all time, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls sold over one million copies in more than 40 languages throughout the course of a year. It’s through teaching our students how to read and write stories like these that we can continue to #PressforProgress in 2018.

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