A friend of mine will be hosting a radio show today on CHRW 94.9FM, as part of their 24-hour dedication to the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, held every December 6th. She and I were talking about the show a few weeks ago, and she asked me if I would be willing to contribute some thoughts about what it was like to teach about the Montreal Polytechnique Massacre of Dec 6, 1989. I thought I’d post them here to commemorate the day, and would be very interested in the thoughts of any fellow teachers who have also had the opportunity to teach about gender equality and/or women’s history:
When I taught high school, I had the privilege of teaching Grade 10 History – the opportunity to teach our province’s youth the History of Canada in the 20th Century. I was not surprised by how much my students already knew about WWI and WWII, although they had been born over fifty years after the latter war ended. These parts of Canada’s history are part of the common collective understanding of our national past, and reinforced yearly through poppies and nationally televised ceremonies. My students did not, however, know almost anything about native history, labour history, immigration history, or women’s history. My experience with teaching many of these topics was similar, but I’ll focus on teaching the history of women, including the events of December 6, 1989 (which, I feel it must be said, hardly any students in this mandatory class hear about, because most history teachers I know seem to ‘run out of time’ in the term to teach anything much past WWII, which is a travesty in and of itself).
But back to the teaching of women’s history: there seems to be a disturbing, overwhelming understanding amongst the teenage students I have taught that the fight for gender equality is something of the past, something that at least in Canada, finished with 1950s housewives, and that if injustice continues today, it is in ‘other’ places. I wonder if this is partly because the popular version of women’s rights in our culture, when it is brought into the light at all, is depicted by flappers, suffragettes, and occasionally female university students of the 1960s. Look for a more current vibe, and the main references paraded are token ‘role models’ in various fields, which when displayed alone give the impression that the fights have now been won.
My history class, coincidentally, was very small and all male, and when we were in the first half of the 20th century, there were a few young men who were passionate supporters of women’s rights, vocally scolding the ‘backwards’ leaders of the past. Yet as our discussions about women’s struggles for equality moved on through the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s when they themselves were born, this supportive contingent became quieter, less certain, and our conversations became more delicate. There even rose a few resisters to feminism, and I heard the sad, ignorant labels of ‘feminazis’ and ‘man-haters’ within my classroom.
It’s hard to talk about gender inequality, and especially gender violence, that exists within our own short lifetimes because the conversation becomes personal. We can’t have the comfortable reaction of patting ourselves on the back for being “so much better now”; instead, it becomes about our parents, and about ourselves. Certain students became openly defensive when we discussed more recent events, as if the facts of inequality within a society they recognized as their own somehow accused them as individuals. In this and other classes, I saw a frequent tendency in young people to defend their own culture and society, to find justifications for why something wasn’t really gender inequality, it was just business, or just politics, or just art, or just… anything. However, when I told my history students about the Montreal Polytechnique Massacre, I remember there being a particular, uncomfortable silence. No one tried to defend this particular injustice – because there is no excuse for gender-based violence, and even a group of young men, in the early stages of their identities as gendered adults, knew this.
What I learned from teaching this class, and others, is that we must continue to teach and speak about gender injustice of the present time and the recent past. We cannot allow ourselves to be fooled as a society into thinking the struggle is over. Yet more importantly, we cannot allow ourselves to be fooled into thinking that this is a gendered struggle – and one of my goals in this particular class became to encourage these male students to see that they, being so young, were not part of these injustices, but instead had the opportunity to be part of a better future, to be those people that they lauded in the history books for progressing equality. Yet we cannot move forward together unless we continue to remember and to speak.