Elanor Hall, a public school in the town of Clyde, Alberta, recently brought back the mid ‘90s version of home ec to 2017.
In February, the school launched a pilot “women studies” course for its students in grades six to nine. The course offers professional instruction on everything from beauty tips to fashion, successfully setting feminism back several valuable decades. “Women studies,” from its course contents to its course name, have induced controversial discourse in several contexts and institutions, but the syllabus offered from this particular course seems to have undone what every other women studies course so far has attempted to do.
The course is aimed towards young female students, and the curriculum offers instruction on dinner etiquettes such as polite conversation and place settings, critical analysis of body and face shapes, and “self-improvement techniques (that) can enhance their natural beauty”— everything that Kylie Jenner, Instagram, and the modern day rom-com, teach young women today. The course also offers a field trip to the nail salon, where they can learn that a clean cuticle is key to healthy self-image. When two days of sex ed instruction in public school barely covers what it means to be female or male apart from the biology of a vagina and a penis, this course seems to offer the most outdated social and political meaning of what it means to identify as a woman.
David Garbutt, the superintendent of Pembina Halls Public Schools, says “the goal here, the real aim, is to help students navigate adolescence and keep their self-image and self-esteem intact.” Media was quick to criticize and point out what the content of the course is actually perpetuating to its students. The students are being offered the same oppressive gender roles that have existed for centuries. The expectation of women to be able to cook, clean, and find confidence in their external beauty does not need further instruction, rather needs dismantling and reconstruction into positive discourse.
The course makes two painful assumptions about the young women of its school, or young women in general. Firstly, the course assumes that the female self-image and self-esteem are reliant only on the ability to perform socially-outdated stereotypes of women. Secondly, the course assumes that their students are not capable of understanding the terms and concepts usually offered in basic women’s studies courses. Key concepts such as feminism or embodiment have already infiltrated common language via social media, literature and the internet. Young teens are beginning to grasp these terms, so why is it that they are denied the opportunity for further informed explanation and exploration, despite the creation of a course that can provide the required physical space, time, and instruction?
There has also been criticism that a men studies class has not been offered as a counterpart to the women studies class. The assumption that only girls need further guidance in self-image and self-esteem but not boys, emphasizes gender as predetermination for self-awareness and confidence. Not only is the problem that the female students are being misrepresented, but also that male students are entirely left out of representation.
The school responded from these criticisms saying the students will also have an opportunity to research women they admire, or the history of female labor and its evolution. However, when health classes, language arts or social studies can offer similar assignments, it can’t help but be questioned why an entire “women studies” course must be created to perpetuate gender-oppressive content, alongside the few healthy and constructive assignments that are already integrated into public school requirements.
My greatest fear is that a young female student will walk out of that classroom believing that’s what women’s studies is, and will cease to pursue and explore its real and constructive contents in the future. The potential and perhaps even the intention for an insightful and productive course exist, but the course requires greater reflection on the meaning and value of the word “women” within its title.