Opinion

Schools are failing our children by not including female authors in English subjects. By Samantha Trenoweth.

Samantha Trenoweth
Books by women are missing from curriculum

It was a steamy January afternoon, a week before the start of school and, as usual, I’d forgotten to order my daughter’s textbooks. I logged on to the school intranet, printed the year 10 book list and prepared for a last-minute dash to the warehouse.

I ticked off the set English texts: Orwell, Steinbeck, Shakespeare. All important writers but, damn, no women again. I’d loved Harper Lee, Jane Austen and the Brontës when I was 15. I’d nicked off with my parents’ copy of Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and, at the urging of a history teacher, read Anne Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police. So I’d read eclectically but mostly they were books by women.

It occurred to me, that night, that there had been no books by women on last year’s school list either. Had there been any the year before?

I downloaded the 2014 lists for years 7 to 12. There was one book by a female author for year 7 (Red by Libby Gleeson). After that, students of Standard English at my daughter’s school weren’t set another book by a woman ever, all the way through high school. Students of Advanced and Extension English fared slightly better. Nothing until year 11, when they were plunged into the deep end with Virginia Woolf (forgive the terrible pun), followed by a bonanza of Dickinson, Plath and Modjeska in year 12.

I was perplexed. We’re talking about an enlightened, inclusive co-ed school here, and the school was certainly responsible. State government bodies set texts for the final years of high school (those studied for the VCE, the HSC and so on), but book choices from kindergarten to year 10 are left to individual schools.

So, was this an oversight? Had the school decided women’s writing was so complex that only advanced year 12 students could safely grapple with it? Or was it that old chestnut that tells us girls will read anything but boys will only read books by and about themselves?

I wasn’t the only mother who’d noticed. A bunch of us wrote a very polite and up-beat letter to the head of English, suggesting a couple of dozen books by women that we felt would fire the imaginations of high school readers of both genders. We included some that were already on various state government-suggested reading lists but we also looked further afield. There were the usual Woolfs and Plaths and Austen–Eliot–Brontës, as well as works by Janet Frame, Sally Morgan, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Kate Chopin, Joan Lindsay, Zadie Smith, Geraldine Brooks, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Kate Grenville, and a whole lot more.

The teacher responded by conceding that this topic was often discussed over the English staffroom urn. We were floored. Really? Women’s contribution to the literary canon is still up for discussion over a Bushells and a Scotch Finger in 2014? Enough with the preamble! Surely it’s time to just add the books.

That’s what the canny women at the Stella Prize think, too. It turns out that my daughter’s is not the only school in Australia with a wildly gender-skewed reading list. The Stella Prize, which celebrates great books by Australian women, has been fielding calls since its inception from teachers, parents and kids, all asking for help in their efforts to have more books by women taught in schools.

So, this week, the Stella Prize will launch its schools program in Victoria, and will gradually expand it nationally. The program includes high school teaching notes on books by Australian women, and a team of authors who are ready and able to speak about books and writing in schools.

The Stella Prize Schools Program is vital because it’s in no one’s interests to treat maleness as a variety of learning difficulty. This notion that boys are reluctant readers, and will only read rollicking, testosterone-infused tales, underestimates their flexibility and intelligence. Boys are not idiots (they’ve been growing up to rule the world for centuries). With a little encouragement, most boys seem able to get their heads around To Kill a Mockingbird and Harry Potter, so they’re probably up for even greater challenges.

Nor is it in anyone’s interests to peddle this mad notion that all the important writers in English are men. The books on our list, and the Stella Prize list, are significant, insightful, finely crafted pieces of writing. No one is suggesting kids should read them solely to champion equity.

However, equity is important. It helps to erode the still prevalent idea that female authors write for women (and can therefore be taught in girls’ schools), while men write for us all (and can be taught everywhere). For boys, this twisted thinking must lead, at best, to a sense of entitlement and, at worst, a lack of empathy; for girls, to a creeping sense of inadequacy and invisibility. It also leads to generations of book lists that look like the one at my daughter’s school.

Australian author Kirsty Murray spoke at the Melbourne Writers Festival this year about meeting girls who have gone “right through secondary school without studying a single book with a strong female protagonist”.

She quoted a year 9 girl, who asked her English teacher: “Sir, when are we going to study a book that’s not about a sulky teenage boy standing on a beach?”

There are a great many inspired and passionate teachers in our schools, but it is quite possible for them to have completed high school (and much of university) without reading a book by a woman. This skews their reading lists and it means their students see the world reflected almost exclusively through male eyes.

Reading is not simply entertainment, it’s a meaning-making activity. The stories we read, especially as kids, help us to make sense of our relationships with family and friends, and of our place in the wider world. If women’s books are absent, then our vision of the world is stunted – it’s halved. That’s no way to educate the next generation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Of mice and women". Subscribe here.

Samantha Trenoweth
is a writer and editor. Her most recent book was Bewitched and Bedevilled: Women Write the Gillard Years.

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