An Open Letter To Mary Speakman, Headteacher At Altrincham Grammar School For Girls

Posted: June 22, 2013 in Political Wrangling
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Dear Mrs Speakman,

recently read in The Guardian about the efforts of one of your students to set up a Feminist Society within your school, and about the backlash she and her fellow students have suffered as a result of it. Almost as disheartening as the rampant misogyny of their detractors, however, was the response of the school itself, which was to require their work to be taken down from the internet.
In your words (my emphasis), “We are committed to protecting the safety and welfare of our students, which extends to their safety online… As such, we will take steps to recommend students remove words or images that they place online that could compromise their safety or that of other students at the school.”
Mrs Speakman, not only is this contradictory – you start out by saying that the school is committed to protecting its students, then place the onus of protection on the students themselves – it is perilously close to victim-blaming. Your girls have been viciously attacked for standing up for their rights, and your response has been to suggest that, by making a simple, courteous plea for equality, they have endangered themselves. The fact that this endangerment is itself the problem has apparently passed you by: in your rush to protect your students, you have done the opposite, effectively sanctioning the violence being directed against them by saying that, to all intents and purposes, they brought it on themselves.
You have unambiguously told your students that only silence can protect them; that if they wish to be safe, then they should neither draw attention to themselves nor advocate for their rights. By withdrawing the school’s support, you have given power to their assailants and effectively punished the girls for being unquiet victims. You have taken away their voice, and you have told them it’s for their own good.
Mrs Speakman, I am generally opposed to same-sex educational institutions. Whatever benefits can be derived by separating and teaching children by gender in our highly gender-sensitive society is, I feel, subsumed beneath the inescapable weight of the fact that real life is coed. But despite the learning environment you provide for them, your girls are acutely aware of this reality: in fact, they are actively dealing with its consequences, and thanks to you, they are doing so alone. Perhaps you feel that, as the threats being made against them are coming from outside Altrincham, the issue is out of your hands. Perhaps you feel you have no control over what outsiders say to your students, and are therefore simply trying to engage in damage control.
But I wonder, Mrs Speakman – would your attitude still be the same if Altrincham were a coed school: if the tirade of racist, sexist, misogynist abuse being levelled at your girls was coming from their male classmates – boys whose actions did fall within your bailiwick? Would your reaction to that scenario have been the same? Knowing that you would be forced to face the consequences of doing so on a daily basis, would you still have told the girls that the price of their safety was silence, and that the best response to abuse at the hands of their male peers was never to speak out against it? I dearly hope not; but the point, Mrs Speakman, is that these boys are still learning from your actions. They might not be your students, but they are students of the world, and when they see you withdrawing support from your girls, they learn that sexism is correct: that the girls who made a fuss, rather than the boys who attacked them, are the ones at fault, and that they should be castigated accordingly.
As well as emailing the school, I’m making this letter public – partly to increase the chances of your seeing it, but mostly because this is an issue I’m passionate about. You have made a bad decision, and in so doing have left your girls to deal with sexist vitriol in isolation. But it is not too late to change things. You can issue an apology; you can reaffirm your support. You can give them the confidence they need to continue advocating for their rights, not only while they’re at school, but once they’ve left its walls. Because while you might think that silence equals safety while they’re under your care, in an all-female environment, that won’t be true forever – if, indeed, it was ever true at all. One day soon, your girls will graduate, but until then, you have a choice: to support them in defending themselves, or to tell them to sit in silence.
I hope you make the right one.
Yours sincerely,
Foz Meadows
  1. Daz says:

    Reblogged this on The Dixie Flatline and commented:
    Silencing the victims is never the solution.

  2. maverynthia says:

    What is sad is that Anita Sarkeesian got a similar thing from Youtube about her not posting anything that would lead to her harassment. This seems to be the attitude of places, and people that the blame lies on the people speaking out against the very abuse they suffer for it.

  3. thedxman says:

    Once more on the victim blaming, silencing, shaming.
    Why does one have to have read a little and know some feminist terminology to understand the basic play-school idea that “when someone is nasty to you it’s not your fault.” Seems like common sense isn’t enough, let’s teach people more basic sociology!

    • Daz says:

      That was what puzzled me when I first started to read feminist material. I saw the terminology—privilege, and suchlike—and assumed there would be deeper aspects which I didn’t yet understand, given the amount of objection being made to it. So I dug a little deeper, looking for the hard-to-grasp stuff. But… nope; it’s just the principle of fairness. Of trying to be as fair and even-handed as possible.

      I really don’t understand how so many people seem to get such a simple thing so very, very wrong.

  4. […] all of you to try for perfectly robotic averageness. Well, I originally came across the article via Shattersnipe, who handles that part better than I […]

  5. admatha says:

    Damn. If I had a school and it had a 17 year old who could write like that in it, I’d be bragging all over the internet, not telling her to keep it down a little because she was making the boys cry.

  6. TNT says:

    The worst part of the school’s reaction is that the majority of the boys doling out the abuse were from Altrincham Grammar School for Boys, a school with which Jinan’s school, AGGS, (and, incidentally, my old one) has extremely close ties. Raising the matter with the appropriate authorities within their school would’ve been the work of minutes. I would, in truth, be surprised if Mrs Speakman has not done so already.

    Mary Speakman is not a bad woman; in this instance, I suspect that the pressure to withdraw has come down from the Executive Headteacher, one Mrs Dana Ross-Wawrzynski – who is shortly to be made a Dame – as well as from parents and governers. Altrincham is an extremely conservative area, and the school espouses traditional views, including the fact that trousers are disallowed as part of the uniform for girls 11-16. Not wanting to rock the boat is very important to the school, and there have been a number of instances similar to this over the years, although not one quite so heinous.

  7. holly says:

    Thank-you! I didn’t come from an all girls school, basically the opposite, but I remember the importance of peer approval in high-school. The courage that young women has shown to stand up too an institution, culture and scariest of all her peers to approach injustice deserves defending.

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