Nascent feminism and young adult literature: Happy International Women’s Day!

Oliva Marsh is a PGCE-Med student who works as a Secondary English teacher while completing her thesis for the Med.

One of the unexpected but great joys of this academic year has been sharing what I’ve been studying and writing on the Med course with my students in school. Since January, I have been running an intersectional feminist discussion group on a weekly basis, exploring current issues as well as the history of the feminist movement. While it is not the topic of my thesis, what has always been of interest to me is the texts that the students are reading and how it shapes their feminism. As the 8thMarch marked International Women’s Day, it seems a poignant month to reflect on the texts students have shared with me across the academic year as a result of discussions on feminism, and what I have discovered about their nascent feminism as a result.

Photo credit: Olivia Marsh

One of my favourite parts of the intersectional feminist discussion group is that it is student-led; two students wanted to start the group and they made it happen. Their impetus for forming the group: Holly Bourne’s Spinster Club series of books and the pivotal text What’s a Girl Gotta Do?, in which the characters start their own feminist group. Students have engaged in a dialogue with this text; they see the author as a strong, female role model, empathise with the characters and topics (love, friendship, self-image, mental health, school, bullying and identity), and they’ve turned this into activism. Resultantly, they discuss the issues raised in the text as well as what they view as the most important feminist issues affecting them today. Topics so far have covered the pay gap, gender stereotypes, media representations and period poverty.

Photo credit: Nic Hilton

I have a sign on the door of my classroom which tells students what book I am currently reading: a subtle but effective way to start conversations and inspire reading. Students are keen to recommend feminist young adult literature to me, and explain why they love the book so much. It happens on a daily basis. The texts that they recommend and discuss; the authors that they quote. Highlight texts include Moxie by Jennifer Matthieu and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. One student passionately loves the poetry collection by Amanda Lovelace The Princess Saves Herself in this One, and attributes the collection of poems to being formative to her identity as a feminist. In addition, Rupi Kaur’s The Sun and her Flowers and Milk and Honey are frequently mentioned for addressing body image and the complexities of relationships. In turn, students reading has prompted the writing of their own poetry; poems that celebrate the female body in all of its imperfection and beauty. Lovelace and Kaur have popularly disseminated their poems through social media, which has enabled a digital interaction via Instagram and Twitter, creating not just a dialogue through the reading and forming of values but a real dialogue between author and reader.

Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project and eponymous book marked a change in my feminist beliefs, and was created as a result of stories of examples of everyday sexism being submitted to a website. It’s a text created collaboratively from multiple contributors and curated by Laura Bates. As a result of work done in schools and conversations with young women, Laura Bates created Girl Up! – a non-fiction text advising teenage girls in a no-nonsense way on how to navigate a patriarchal society that daily teaches them to hate their bodies, to shrink themselves, to be less than they really are. Laura Bates’ recently published first fiction text The Burning picks up on many of the same themes: social media pressure, insecurity, cyberbullying, and it interweaves a historical narrative of how young women were treated as witches for defending themselves, for being outspoken, and of how they were blamed for their own rapes. Drawing parallels between how women have been treated in the past and today, the text is designed to empower teenage girls. Girl Up! ends with a chapter on how to form your own feminist group and how to ensure that it is intersectional so as to enable everyone’s voice to be heard. Similarly, The Burning works hard to represent a diverse collection of characters.

Photo credit: Nic Hilton

To celebrate International Women’s Day, one of the group’s priorities was to put together a suggested feminist reading list and library display to share the books that have influenced their feminist ideologies with their peers. The girls’ suggestions: The Spinster Club trilogy by Holly Bourne, Moxie by Jennifer Matthieu, Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nichols and non-fiction texts such as Malala Yousafazi I Am Malala and Caitlan Moran’s How to Build a Girl.

Photo credit: Olivia Marsh

The students’ nascent understanding and engagement with feminism is shaped by everything around them: social media, the media industry more broadly, the news, their peers and parents. What I find beautiful is that their feminism is being influenced by 21stcentury literature, which seeks to guide them through increasingly complex teenage years and challenge the gender inequality and stereotypes which have perpetuated for so long in society, and have therefore been mirrored in literature.

Photo credit: Olivia Marsh

What strikes me about the texts the students are engaging with is that the authors are not remote, abstract ideas. Their essays talking about how ‘The author presents the theme of inequality through…’. They are real women who the students can understand, empathise and identify with; whose voice becomes that of a peer or friend; and who they can interact with through social media (directly with the author or sharing with friends). 

Photo credit: Olivia Marsh

In the dialogue between text and reader, feminist identity is shaped, and young women can be empowered.

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