how school girls fought for feminism in the 60s and 70s

Sick of being excluded from the mainstream Women’s Rights movement, a new generation of teen activists created their own revolutions in the school yard.

by Madison Griffiths
02 May 2017, 1:41am

Image via Wikipedia

Considering the presence of notable young trailblazers like Malala YousafzaiTavi Gevinson, and Amandla Stenberg in the public eye over the last decade, it's difficult to imagine a time where adolescents weren't given room in the feminist movement. But the notion of "girl power" wasn't always taken seriously. To be both a teenager and a feminist in the 60s and 70s meant shattering walls, losing friends, being unfairly expelled and facing exclusion from the Women's Liberation movement at large: a political crusade largely dominated by adults.

This was an age of rapid, social protest where the Vietnam War had sparked astounding amounts of resistance to systemic violence and dominated the public consciousness. In the shadow of such a brutal, world altering event gender discrimination (in particular, the type perpetuated behind the school gates) was deemed trivial.

But, far from trivial, being a girl and a student meant meeting sexism head on. The schoolyard homed many unquestioned, traditional customs that served as the root for gendered attitudes that would follow individuals through life. Facing off against uniform measures and being barred from traditionally male-dominated sports and classes, it's no surprise so many activists found their voices between recess and lunch.

Whilst the Women's Liberation movement of the time invested its energy into 'grown-up' issues—such as the indisputable pay gap and equal opportunity in the workforce—teenage girls were oppressed in ways unique to their adolescence. Cultural theorist Angela McRobbie argued that the media of the 1970s was uninspiring and disheartening for school-age girls looking for representation. Too young to have bras to burn, they were, in turn, invisible.

Out of sight, the schoolyard itself—with its tall fences, and strict uniform requirements—proved an oppressive tool. As discussed by American Studies professor Kera Lovell, girls were trapped between a rock and a hard place: they were sent home for resisting gendered-dress codes by donning masculine fashions. But were also reprimanded for mocking said codes by wearing over-the-top, floor-length dresses.

Too young to have bras to burn, they were, in turn, invisible.

While adults ignored them, this policing of girl's bodies and voices was a prevalent topic in youth activism of the era. In 1965 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker symbolically protested against the Vietnam War by wearing a black armband over her uniform to mourn those whose lives were lost. After being suspended—and even having her education threatened—she successfully sued the Des Moines school district for impeding her ability to practice free speech, arguing that her self-expression could not lawfully be dismissed upon entering the school gates. Whilst gendered clothing still remained compulsory (as skirts and pants weren't then deemed up for political discussion), Tinker created a precedent and stirred an otherwise smug, American school system which prided itself on its authority.

Even after Tinker's noble demonstration, however, uniforms remained an oppressive tradition. By the late 60s writer Kera Lovell documented that hundreds of female students and teachers across the US were trading their skirts for pants to engage in sit-ins in principal's offices. At Ohio's Fairmont West High School the protest efforts of more than 100 adolescents succeeded in changing the administration's ban on women wearing pants. But it was still a fight waged in pieces. In her article Girls Are Equal Too: Education, Body Politics, and the Making of Teenage Feminism Lovell notes that in 1970 eight girls at the Somerville High School in Massachusetts were arrested for wearing pants to school as a form of protest. In their demonstration, they refused to be a "humiliated sexual spectacle" in a skirt.

But the limitations on female students extended beyond their outfits, they were also generally banned from 'practical, hands-on' subjects—such as wood and metal work, whilst being obliged to partake in domestic subjects such as home economics. In 1971, school girl Bonnie Sanchez demanded a legal explanation in court from the New York City Board of Education for why she and a collection of her fellow female students were not allowed to take a metalwork class at Van Wyck Junior High School. Their presentation eventually forced the New York City's School District's to make all subjects coeducational.

But perhaps the most concerning exclusion related to girls being unable to attend or even apply to certain reputable schools, despite their academic record. That was until 13-year-old trailblazer Alice de Rivera decided to take a stand against the fact her outstanding marks didn't allow her to apply for New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School. Her protest kicked off a controversial lawsuit in 1969 against the institution. She was successful, but when restrictions were eventually loosened in 1970 female students were hardly welcomed with open arms. Alyse Reckson, who was amongst the first teenage girls to enter Stuyvesant's gates later wrote the institution refused to practically accommodate them: in particular, there wasn't a girls' bathroom in sight.

Behind classroom doors, adolescent girls cultivated a progressive movement which proudly lingers in teenage activism today.

Considering these protests were unfolding during a time of growing sexual freedom and education, it's perhaps not surprising that many of these groups and individuals also began agitating for a school culture that better, and more broadly, prepared them for the adult world. Teenage feminist collectives, such as the Student Coalition for Relevant Sex Education, worked tirelessly to push for sex education in their school curriculums. They were responding to a growing demand for information. According to a survey conducted by Planned Parenthood in 1974, teenage girls ranked having a sufficient sex education second in value, only to career training. They strove for a syllabus that would sufficiently tackle issues relevant to adolescent girls, such as contraceptive options, safe sex more generally, and navigating queerness in a heteronormative society.

As Western schools showed no interest in a sex education that involved more than simply promoting 'family values', the Student Coalition for Relevant Sex Education made it their mission to initiate their own educational programmes. In 1971, they created informational leaflets which covered the sorts of topics that were boldly ignored in mainstream school courses. They even organised a five-week programme for students and their parents which tackled subject matters addressed in their pamphlet the How-To Handbook, On Organising a Student Sex Information Project. Almost half a century later we're still pushing for independent sex-positive and queer-inclusive schemes in schools. But there is little doubt initiatives like Safe Schools Coalition would exist without the self-governing strategies employed and initiated by activists in the 70s.

Behind classroom doors, adolescent girls cultivated a progressive movement which proudly lingers in teenage activism today. From students being handcuffed for wearing pants, to underground sex-positive education initiatives, they paved the way for today's intelligent and public exploration of girlhood in the media. But most importantly, their efforts serve as a reminder that rather than speaking over our youngest and brightest, we should instead be attentive to their needs. Puberty is already a tough gig—but being an activist and standing up for equality is the toughest. 


Text Madison Griffiths

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