Sometimes I look with nostalgia at the seventies: not to the music, the clothes, the cars or the haircuts, but the awakening of student political power. I rail at its absence in many Australian high schools today, as highlighted by a quick comparison of my youngest daughter’s experience of finishing Year 10, and my own.
She came home from her Year 10 break-up party, put on by the school at the school, which she had been preparing for all month … annoyed – to use a polite term. She thought it was crap. No proper food, it was supposed to be a meal, but when do party pies constitute a meal? And what about the vegetarians, again not catered for. (She’s always served tomato sauce on a piece of white bread, at Australian schools’ preferred food (sic) fund raiser – the Sausage Sizzle!)
They had a DJ at the dance, but the selection of music and it’s loudness was not to her or her friends’ liking. In her words; the music was crap too.
The students were to come dressed up in a decade from the twentieth century. She went as a hippie from the seventies, which required buying a new dress, make-up (to look natural), a flower tiara and various other bracelets, anklets. She looked beautiful; the epitome of youthful freedom. The irony being that for her to look like an example of an anti-materialist sub-group cost me sixty dollars. But then being a hippy, punk, goth or even grunge today, is all about fashion, not social change or politics. Capitalism profits on the backs (and feet) of the young.
She goes to a conservative Catholic school (Is there any other sort?) There are reasons why, unlike our other kids, she is not going to State High School, but for the purpose of this generalised discussion of comparisons, it doesn’t matter. I find her school’s make-up blitzs, obsession with uniforms and their length, reminiscent of the state country high school I went to forty years ago. Are Catholic schools forty years behind State schools in their attitudes to dress codes or is it the same for State schools? As far as I can ascertain, both systems still impose the wearing of uniforms on their students, but state school students can wear shorter ones.
The basic tenet that what a woman or girl looks like, is more important than what she thinks or does, still holds true in Western Capitalist societies and the institutions, in this instance, schools, that uphold them. The focus on punishing girls who don’t comply with an institution’s dress code rules does nothing to build self-esteem in young women, or encourage them to reach their full potential as human beings. Besides, many young women are already experts in punishing themselves, through a range of behaviours from self harm to anorexia. Addressing these life threatening behaviours with effective duty of care measures is of far greater value than suspending them from school. Today, organisations like Beauty Redefined are leaders in challenging patriarchal ideals of beauty and educating the public about the effects of sexist advertising on young women and men.
But when I was in Year 10 the second wave of Feminism was just beginning. It was 1975; International Women’s Year. Young people were urged to have a voice and organise, and we did. At the school, girls campaigned to wear ‘slacks’ as part of the winter uniform. Up until then girls were only allowed to wear dresses, winter and summer. At the time many employers still did not allow their female employees to wear trousers, and equal pay for women was still being implemented across workplaces in Australia.
Young, progressive teachers with outspoken political views were being employed in state high schools, and these teachers mentored students in organising and lobbying for changes. Student Council was not just about fund-raising, but a voice for students. Young people were given the opportunity to articulate their demands, discuss policies, make changes and work together to achieve them.
Our Year 10 leaving party was organised and catered for by ourselves and it cost very little. We were responsible for it, and I remember that it was fully attended and generally enjoyed. But before I wax lyrical about the power of young people, I cannot forget that in my Year 10, six out of the thirty girls aged between 15 and 16, became pregnant that year. These statistics are similar to what is now identified as the experience of many young women in the developing world.
So what are the real changes for young women forty years on? Young women, then and now, are powerful, but they are also vulnerable. They still experience angst and look for ways to deal with it. What differs is the political and social climate of conservatism we live in; the idealisation of materialism, the self-centredness of social media and the predominance of apathy. This conglomerate of oppressiveness is difficult for a seasoned advocate to deal with, let alone a young person experiencing the traumas and intensity of hormonal imbalances, emotional dramas and physical changes to their body.
Although I can’t fight my daughter’s battles for her, I can be her sparring partner. I’m flexible enough to duck the dramas and tough enough to cop the odd jab to the heart. I can talk to her about what it was like when I was young; she may even listen to me. In my heart I want her to be someone who rise’s up and helps others to do the same. I want the young women of today to be leaders in compassion and humanity for themselves and for others.
the common woman is as common as the best of bread
and will rise