"Answering Back" Dialogue

SSmith (SSmith@edc.org)
11/5/98 10:21 AM EST

Hello everyone:

Our week-long EDEQUITY Dialogue with Jane Kenway and Sue
Willis, the co-authors of the new Australian book "Answering
Back: Girls, Boys and Feminism in Schools" (Routledge, 1998,
225 pp.) will begin Friday, November 6. Their opening
message will be posted to the list by 9:30 a.m. and the
Dialogue is scheduled to end at 5 p.m. on Sept. 18. A
review of the book is included with this e-mail.

You will recall that we are co-sponsoring this discussion
with the Australian Curriculum Studies Association (ACSA)'s
gender network, a listserv on gender equity issues for
teachers and researchers from all sectors and levels of the
Australian education system. With the 14-hour time
difference between the U.S. and Australia, they will have a
bit of a head-start in real time, but we will have all of
those messages to post at the beginning of our discussion.

Just a reminder, once the Dialogue begins, messages not
related to the book discussion will not be posted until
November 13.

Looking forward to your participation.


Susan J. Smith
EDEQUITY Moderator

This Book review will appear in the next edition of the
journal "Pacific Asian Education" and is used with

ANSWERING BACK: Girls, Boys and Feminism in Schools

Answering Back, by Jane Kenway and Sue Willis (with
Jill Blackmore and Leonie Rennie) offers a timely and
significant evaluation of the gender reforms which have
taken place in Australian schools over recent decades. The
authors present a comprehensive and authentic selection of
the conversations contained in the gender debate, and
provide a sophisticated and complex analysis of the issues.
Whilst my experience of reading and reviewing this book
was disheartening, it must be stressed that this is a
reflection of disappointment and frustration with the state
of gender reform in schools, rather than the quality and
relevance of the text.

The book is the result of various research projects
carried out by the authors in a range of schools in five
Australian states in the early 1990s. The major source was a
research project funded by the Australian Research Council,
in which the authors looked at 'how gender reformers read
and rewrite policy, and how others in the schools read and
rewrite the work of gender reformers' (p.xvii). The research
involved interviews and observations with teachers, school
principals and students. Kenway and Willis have used
research such as this to write Answering Back, in whichthey
aim to 'fill a rather embarrassing gap in the literature on
gender and schooling' (p.xiv). The authors have organised
this book into chapters which each address themes such as
success, knowledge, power, emotion and responsibility.

The authors have stated that they expected to 'surprise
and provoke' (p. xxiii) in their book. How I longed to be
surprised by tales of gender reform achievements and the
resultant long-term changes in schools! Sadly, the stories
contained in the book didn't surprise. In fact, they were
depressingly predictable. Despite short term success in
gender reform programs, long term gains were hard to find,
and seeming success often subsequently resulted in negative
backlash and disruption.

In an attempt to explain the disruption which gender
reform often precipitates,Kenway and Willis note that it
'messes with institutional and community traditions and
cultures and individual psyches' (p.30), and that 'it is
highly disruptive of social and therefore power arrangements
in schools' (p.184). Most importantly, the authors note that
gender reform 'makes aspects of masculinity problematic in a
cultural context where masculinity is seldom made
problematic' (p.153).

One stated aim of the authors was 'to give teachers,
and particularly students, a voice in policy - to voice the
unvoiced, to provide them with the opportunity to answer
back' (p.xvi). This book undoubtedly provides a powerful
medium for the voices of teachers and students involved in
gender reform to be heard. However, the choice of title
Answering Back conveys to me a sense of agency and even
defiance, and it cannot be assumed that merely allowing the
voices of teachers and students to be heard will provide an
opportunity for them to 'answer back'. In fact, it is
interesting to look at who is doing the 'answering back'
referred to in the title. A limited number of students
answered back, raising their voices to both the previous
hegemonic practices in schools, and to the more recent
gender reform regimes introduced into schools. A student
named Kelly (p.41) answered back to the latter by refusing
to do maths and science. Some harrowed teachers involved
in gender reform also answered back in exhausted voices to
the critical and belligerent colleagues and students. Sadly,
a great deal of the answering back comes from teachers who
either wilfully misinterpret the ideals of gender reform,
or complain that 'gender reforms have gone too far and are
now unfair to boys'(p.57).

Ample evidence is cited in Answering Back to show that
progress in the gender debate has stalled. Kenway and Willis
note that the ideas and imperatives of gender reform 'are
often ignored, wilfully misinterpreted or vehemently
resisted. However, more usually they are reinterpreted,
revised and rewritten' (p.30). Examples of acts of betrayal,
wilful misinterpretation and disappointing outcomes include:

--single-sex classes set up for the benefit of girls, which
end up providing the boys with 'new opportunities for
old-style masculinity, for male bravado and bonding'

--single-sex classes being set up and then dropped once
teachers' masters theses are finished (p.189);

--buying science equipment with 'girl's money' even though
there isn't any direct link to girls (p.189);

--women speaking out against sexism regarded as
anti-pleasure, humourless, extremist and man-haters (p.116);

--and aggressive behaviour of boys and their harassment of
girls continuing to be excused, justified and naturalised.

Even when such behaviour is recognised and named, it
is often attached to ethnicity or class rather than
masculinity (p.111). Lest it appear that the news is all
negative on the gender reform front, Kenway and Willis also
unearth some positive outcomes. The authors point out that
it was often difficult to find out about successes, 'since
they had become everyday practice for some teachers and as a
result went unremarked' (p.187). Examples of gender reform
successes include the refusal to use sexist texts, providing
girls with interesting and challenging work experience
settings, offering boys and girls new ways of thinking about
men and women and having equal intellectual and social
expectations of girls and boys (p.186).

One of the many strengths of Answering Back is Kenway
and Willis's exceptionally insightful and thorough
treatment of the vexed issue of 'what about the boys?'. In
particular, they look at differences in boys, and also
tackle the issue of boys who are different to prevailing
hegemonic masculinities. The authors acknowledge that many
of the boys' claims contain seeds of truth, and also point
to some of the limitations of gender reform programs
(p.155). Kenway and Willis also offer some very interesting
work on the emotional dimensions of gender reform, and call
for a feminist 'pedagogy of the emotions' (p.132).

It seems important to question who Answering Back was
written for, as the authors do not indicate their
anticipated readership. This book would undoubtedly be
useful for researchers, teachers, policy makers and
students. However, I experience some ambivalence about
recommending the book to teachers who have been involved in
gender reform, as it may not necessarily affirm their
efforts, and could be potentially problematic. Such teachers
would undoubtedly draw a great deal of solace from the
vignettes in the book, which indicate that their own
battles were not isolated incidents, but were repeated in
schools everywhere.

Reading this book may also allow teachers to celebrate
some victories and to participate in the mapping exercise
for the journey they have traversed. However,upon reading
these stories, teachers who have struggled with gender
reform for years could be left despondent and feeling that
their efforts have largely been in vain, given the
inescapable evidence that sexism is still widespread and

The authors did not canvass any future possibilities
and directions, leaving readers with an excellent analysis
of the mistakes which were made, but with no indication
of 'where to from here?'. Kenway and Willis concluded that
'gender reform was on the wane almost everywhere' (p.210).
It is important to note that in the absence of any current
gender communication channels such as The Gen (which
ceased publication in June 1996), teachers and students may
not even discover this book.

Having been involved in gender reform programs in high
schools for most of the period covered in Answering Back, I
could easily position myself in the schools visited by
Kenway and Willis. The interviews constituted authentic
representations of the challenges inherent in gender reform,
and the conversations cited could easily have been my own.
The choice of vignettes had the power to place me back in
staffrooms, forcing me to prepare once again, a defence for
the existence of gender reform programs.

I would recommend this book to readers seeking an honest,
thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of the complex and
sometimes evasive issues surrounding the gender debate in
Australia. The book will challenge educators to learn from
previous gender reform attempts, and to find new ways to
formulate and shape future gender debates and reforms.

Janet Smith
Faculty of Education
University of Canberra

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