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A Bonza Briony & Other Feminist Collectives
22 / 11 / 2014
Briony O’Keeffe has recently been occupying a bit of space in the office of the Victorian Women’s Trust to work on a resource for the Fitzroy Feminist Collective, which she was instrumental in setting up with students as a teacher at Fitzroy High School. And the Collective is going from strength to strength. Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper asks her some questions in ‘inducting’ her as this month’s ‘Bonza Sheila’ – many thanks, Briony – a well deserved ‘Bonza’ gong indeed.
SARAH CAPPER [SC]: I like to start by asking about people’s backgrounds – in that I am wondering how your childhood influenced your adult self – was there an event or parent or sibling which / who had a great impact on you?
BRIONY O’KEEFFE [BOK]: As corny as it sounds, the person who had a huge impact on me (and still does) was my mum. She sought a divorce at a time when it still made you a bit of a social pariah, worked bloody hard to bring up two kids by herself (and two more later on with my stepdad, I’ll get to him) and she was incredibly strong and loving and supportive throughout it all. She always let me be myself, even when I was being an obnoxious teenage smart-arse or ranting about everything when I discovered post-structuralist feminism. Mum also played women’s football and rode us around on her bike like a legend because she couldn’t afford a car. There wasn’t really a ‘cycling culture’ in Shepparton in 1982 (or ever) so that was brave. And in addition, my Step-dad, who was a well meaning but really dominating force in my life as a teenager (we’re good mates now) also had a significant impact on my adult self: he consistently encouraged me not to accept the ‘facts’ of the world as they were given to me, and to think critically about the world rather than accepting things as they were told to me. I’m pretty sure there have many been occasions when he regretted that.
[SC]: When did you realise you were a feminist? Was there a penny dropping moment or was it more a gradual realisation?
[BOK]: There was definitely a penny dropping moment. I’d always been a pretty strong person in terms of my beliefs about social justice in general. I asked lots of questions about the role of women in religion at my catholic school (not a good fit for an atheist, as it turns out), and it was made clear to me by some of my teachers that those questions were “inappropriate”, which really incensed me. I thought the ‘Sex Ed’ we received as young women – graphic videos of aborted foetuses, “this is what happens to you if you have sex!” etc. – was way more inappropriate. But I was lucky enough to have a teacher in Year 12, Joyce Feain, who gave us an article from the Australian Feminist Law Journal on a case called ‘R vs Hakopian’ which was about a judge declaring that sex workers were less harmed by sexual assault than ‘chaste’ women. I still remember how angry and baffled the judgement made me feel. However the real ‘penny dropping’ moment came in the first year of my arts degree, when I took what turned out to be a pretty life-changing course with a lecturer, Adrian Howe: she articulated so many things that I had felt angry and frustrated and passionate about as a young woman in a way that really chimed with me, and she identified strongly as a feminist: I remember a real moment of clarity when I thought, ‘ohhhhh, that’s what I am!”
[SC]: Good work, Adrian Howe! I believe you’ve been teaching for around 8 years, and have also worked in the Drug and Alcohol sector as a researcher, as well as time as a University tutor and substitute teacher. What inspired you to make the shift over to teaching?
[BOK]: When I made the decision to become a teacher I’d been working as a senior drug and alcohol researcher for about 8 years, and I’d begun to realise that it wasn’t a great fit for me. I’d first taken the job to work on an evaluation of a support program that was being offered to women who had been recently released from prison, which I loved. Then I spent a few years interviewing heroin users, drug agencies and police for a national report on drug trends, and ended up working primarily with clients who had been admitted to long-term rehabilitation for alcohol addiction, which began to make me sad. At the same time I began to realise that a lot of the epidemiological methodology used in the sector didn’t sit well with my politics. I’d completed my honours at La Trobe a few years earlier and been offered a tutoring job for a couple of years (in two of Adrian’s subjects, which was bloody great – talking about feminism and Foucault constantly, yes!) and I’d found teaching really rewarding. I turned 30 and decided to go back to uni and go for it.
[SC]: As the Fitzroy High School Year 10 Teaching and Learning leader, you’re the teacher who works most closely with the Fitzroy Feminist Collective – it began in your literature class last year when students were debating the character of Curly’s wife in John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’. Can you describe how it came about?
[BOK]: It was a ‘Book Club’ elective class full of year 8 and 9 students actually – we’re pretty advanced over at Fitzroy High – and one of the boys in the class made a comment about Curly’s wife sort of ‘asking for’ the violence that was inflicted upon her in the book. Well, that was a bold move. Because it turned out that the class had quite a few ‘sleeper’ feminists in it (though they may not all have identified as feminists then) and they were really into having a discussion with the student about rape culture and victim blaming and violence against women, which then extended to outrage that the one ‘substantial’ woman character in the book didn’t even have her own name and that she was identified as the possession of her husband. It was a really mature and passionate discussion and the student who asked the question was actually really keen to think about why his comment had offended so many of the other students in the class. Quite a few of the kids stayed back to have a chat after class and that culminated in me offering to start a lunchtime club or collective to discuss the issues that were raised. We had about two lunchtime meetings before we realised that they weren’t going to cut the mustard in terms of time, so I approached my then team leader to suggest running a feminist collective as a class, which he gave an unequivocal thumbs up to, and we’ve never looked back. We’ve had two classes a week for nearly two years now, and we’re still going strong.
[SC] What factors do you think have influenced the members of the group in identifying as feminists, at such an age?
[BOK]: I think having the support of a group of like-minded peers has been really helpful. They’ve been able to work through what it means to be a feminist together and to come to the conclusion that there were a lot of stupid stereotypes about feminism that just didn’t resonate with them. I also think they’ve had the opportunity to engage with a lot of online feminism (which would have been much harder to access back in the old days of the, ahem, 1990s) and that’s given them a sense of community too and therefore the confidence to identify as feminists. Also, I have to say, I don’t know if it’s been a direct influence, but Fitzroy High has a really high proportion of strong women leaders – our principal, who now takes the Feminist Collective once a week, our deputy principal, our careers leader, our business manager, our team leaders and teaching and learning leaders etc. There are lots of good feminist role models around for them, even if not all of those women identify as feminists, and also lots of great male teachers who support feminist activity. I hope that identifying openly as a feminist myself has also helped my students to break down some of the stereotypes around feminism and to feel more comfortable with it. I do have hairy underarms though. And hairy legs. And I do…oh hang on, my partner and my ‘man friends’ and my dad/s will probably read this…
[SC]: Given that feminism can be a divisive issue, and not one necessarily associated with high school students, were you surprised that the students were keen to form a collective and identify as such?
[BOK]: I wasn’t surprised that they wanted to talk about feminist issues or that they embraced the opportunity to have a space to do that in, but I was pretty impressed that they were willing to publicly identify as feminists. That process took longer for some of the kids than others (and it’s certainly not a prerequisite of the class) but they’re pretty passionate about the term and about each being able to develop their own personal feminist philosophy. Fitzroy High has a really supportive school community as well, which probably isn’t the case for all secondary schools – certainly not my own – although obviously that doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done in terms of sexism and misogyny. Teenagers are pretty full of pluck and passion and courage too, which I think is sometimes overlooked in favour of categorising them as sort of apathetic brats with attitude.
[SC]: The group launched a Kickstarter campaign (Check it out, here) to raise funds to develop a resource designed by and for high school students, to address the harm caused by sexist language and objectification. It raised the requested $12,000 in a matter of months, and I know I was impressed by the accompanying video when it was launched. How was this process for you and the students concerned?
[BOK]: It was fricking exciting! We’d aimed to raise $3,000, which we did in a number of hours, and we were all sitting at home refreshing our screens and posting on our class page about what was going on: there were lots of daggy smiley emoticons and exclamation marks flying around! I’m really glad that you liked the video: we spent a lot of time thinking about its tone and about creating something for Kickstarter that reflected how serious we all were about the project. We were incredibly buoyed by the amount of support there was out there in the community for a feminist teaching resource – it made the group feel validated and assured that there was a place for what we were trying to do. We’ve got fun stuff happening now too like having an afternoon tea with some of our donors next week to thank them for their support. We love cake, so any opportunity really.
[SC]: Appreciate the love of cake, a good feminist tradition, perhaps. You’re developing a resource documenting the whole process – I believe partly in the hope that it can be incorporated into school curricula and inspire other schools and young people to form their own feminist collectives. What sort of interest have you had in the collective, in terms of other schools or groups trying to replicate it, and what are your hopes with the teaching resource?
[BOK]: Yep, the teaching resource is intended to accompany the posters the collective designed, addressing the objectification of young women’s bodies and the use of the word ‘slut’ – two issues that affected the members of the class on a regular basis. Our original intention was to get our posters out to Victorian schools, but it dawned on us that even though the posters were pretty darn good (you can check them out here) they would have a limited impact in terms of changing the way other young people, and their teachers, thought. So we decided to create some educational materials to accompany the posters and to support teachers to educate young people about feminist issues — and then to ‘take over the world’ in the words of the kids, and distribute them as far as they could go! The resource will be available for free on our website early next year. We’ve had quite a lot of interest from other schools within Australia (and a few international queries) and have had several schools contact us to tell us that they’ve started their own feminist collective as a result of the project, which is just brilliant. We had a school come and visit us this week actually, looking for support and talking about the challenges of maintaining a feminist collective when their teachers support them, but the leadership of their school doesn’t think it’s “necessary” to address sexism. The FHS Feminist Collective plans to go out and do a presentation there at some stage, because WE HAVE NEWS FOR THEM.
[SC]: I met the Collective at the launch of Rosie and was struck by members’ confidence and intelligence and pride in being feminists. It’s fantastic to see such confidence in young women. What do you think the group / members of the group have gained since being in the collective?
[BOK]: I think they’ve gained a sense of personal power, which makes me feel a bit teary and emotional to be honest. It’s not the sort of power that you wield over others, but the sort you get from learning that collective action can have an impact, and that if you are passionate about something and you are persistent and dogged in how you go about addressing it, people will listen. They’ve also gained a community, which is critical I think, because feminism, as you say, can be a divisive issue. And they’ve learned a lot about feminism as a philosophy and a movement: we have lots of discussions about the issues with first and second feminism and its focus on white, able bodied, heterosexual women, and about the contradictions and challenges inherent in identifying as a feminist when you still feel caught up in some of the cultural expectations that are placed on women.
[SC]: If you could give advice to your 16 year old self, what would it be?
[BOK]: Don’t wait until you are 18 and you have moved away from the country to fully own your political beliefs. And stop allowing stupid, abusive and misogynist young men to make you feel as if you aren’t worthy of respect because you aren’t pretty/skinny/silent enough to matter. You’re going to want to punch them in the face a bit later on (and yourself too, come to think of it). Also, when the careers counselor tells you, despite your excellent academic record, that you should consider being a ‘legal secretary’ instead of a ‘lawyer’ ignore her advice and apply for law anyway.
[SC]: Name a woman who inspires you and why?
[BOK]: Usually I’d name an adult here. I found Gayatri Spivak and bell hooks incredibly inspiring when I was studying for example. But the truth is that at the moment I find the students in my Feminist Collective class the most inspiring. Their pretty darn sophisticated understanding of feminism aside, I find their commitment to acknowledging and understanding issues like marginalisation incredible, they’re natural critical thinkers, and their ability to remain committed to a project for two years would put many an adult to shame. Their passion and their anger and their refusal to accept misogyny and sexism are genuinely inspiring.
[SC]: What’s next for the Fitzroy Feminist Collective (apart from the resource)?
[BOK]: We’ll face some challenges next year as some of the group move into VCE, but there’s great determination on all of our parts to maintain the momentum of the collective. The older members of the class will hopefully mentor new younger members and the aim is to teach our own resource in Feminist Collective classes at Fitzroy High. We’ve also got our launch to look forward to early next year, and hopefully lots of visits to schools to support them in starting their own feminist collectives and to introduce the teaching resource. There’ve been lots of opportunities to speak at events like the Rosie Launch and to be involved in great projects like the Waratah Project too, so we hope to continue to be involved in other fantastic initiatives. And who knows what a new group of feminist collective students will come up with next year: I stand by with great anticipation.
[SC]: What’s next for Briony O’Keeffe?
[BOK]: A rather surprising turn of events, actually. I’ve spent about 25 years feeling pretty certain that I wasn’t going to have kids – 19 of those with my brilliant partner – but it turns out I was wrong about that! In January we’ll be taking on a new challenge, not the least of which will be helping our kid to grow into a bloody good feminist! And further along than that, I’d like to broaden my horizons a bit, maybe do some educational consulting or try to convince someone to pay me what ‘real’ people get for writing educational resources, or get back into some research that’s more related to my interests. I’ll never stop teaching though; I absolutely, unequivocally love it.
[SC]: Best wishes to you – Thank you so much for being our Bonza Sheila – and here’s hoping it’s onward and upwards for the Fitzroy Feminist Collective.
Fitzroy Feminist Facebook page:
Briony O’Keeffe is the Fitzroy High School Year 10 Teaching and Learning leader. As part of an elective ‘Book Club’ for year 8 and 9’s, she helped establish the ‘Fitzroy Feminist Collective’ with students. From there, it’s pretty much been herstory …