Fighting Back: The daily activism of a school librarian

Features, News

By Karys McEwen

A few years ago, I was working as the librarian at a private girls’ school in Melbourne. During Book Week, YA author Fiona Wood gave a presentation at the school assembly. Towards the end of her speech, she asked the audience of young girls and their teachers who among them considered themselves a feminist. A meagre scattering of hands appeared. Wood looked out in disbelief and asked again. This time a couple more hands crept up, the confessors shyly looking around at their peers. In total, no more than 15 feminists among a sea of 500. In my front row seat, I felt nauseous. As the librarian, I considered fostering equality as part of my role, whether through promoting books with a positive message, or providing a safe space for progressive ideas to flourish. Had I been doing enough?

Later that afternoon, two Year Eight students approached the library desk. These treasures were library frequent flyers; quiet but bright-eyed and with an awareness of the world far beyond their years (as great readers often are). They described similar feelings of alarm when so few students raised their hands to identify as feminists. They told me they felt ashamed, and wanted to do something about it. Spurred on by inspiration they found reading the online magazine Rookie, they wanted to start a Feminist Club to increase the understanding of feminism, and advocate for gender equality at school and beyond. They needed my help to get it started.

And so the Feminist Club was born, and in the months that followed we met regularly. The girls led the charge, and after one of them began the inaugural meeting with a speech about the importance of intersectional feminism, one of the teachers in attendance had to leave because she felt so emotional. Joyous tears streamed down her face as she exited the library.

As the librarian, I considered fostering equality as part of my role, whether through promoting books with a positive message, or providing a safe space for progressive ideas to flourish.

We created a manifesto, stuck posters around the school, and wrote a proposal to the uniform committee to request trousers be added to the school uniform. We read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Clementine Ford, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Louise O’Neill, and recommended news articles and opinion pieces to one another. We spoke about our own experiences, watched the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, and taught each other about the efforts of feminists throughout history. It felt like what we were doing was necessary.

Having a Feminist Club in a typically conservative school wasn’t without its difficulties. Two sisters started attending each meeting with their traditional, religious views, and because of their presence much of the discussion soon became heated debate. The sad thing was their view was actually the same as our own: equality. They just didn’t want the focus on female. However, after one meeting where I shared a scary experience of being followed down an alley by a group of teenage boys the weekend before, one of them came up afterwards and apologised, hugging me awkwardly with misty eyes. It reminded me that when you go to school in a sheltered, all-female environment your worldview is likely to be affected. And there’s not necessary any way for you to realise what goes on until you leave that nest.  I hope that, at the very least, I helped her to realise that life as a woman wouldn’t always be as easy as it was at that moment, in that protected place, and what she could do to prepare herself and fight back against that injustice.

The daily activism of a school librarian can seem quiet, but it can also be an earthquake, even at its most subtle.

Sadly, I left that school not long after the Feminist Club began. But the students have continued their work and they keep me updated. Recently they succeeded in their crusade for trousers (the campaign name: Power to the Pants), and they now proudly call it their legacy at school. I personally can’t take any credit for the club or their achievements, but I am deeply honoured and proud to have been the one they came to for help.

The daily activism of a school librarian can seem quiet, but it can also be an earthquake, even at its most subtle: we are calmly plotting the revolution behind our library desks. As librarians, we have a responsibility for taking a stance against discrimination, and advocating for justice and equality – at their core, libraries are about building community and enhancing opportunities for all.

I got into a spot of trouble recently on an Australian-wide school library email network while lobbying for this cause. A retired librarian posted about his disappointment in this year’s Inky Awards longlist due to the minority of male authors, which to him meant that young boys would have nothing to read. He also claimed that people were happy to be outraged when big awards like the Man Booker or Miles Franklin were male-dominated, but no outrage existed when female authors tipped the scales. I argued back, and all of a sudden, I received an angry barrage of essays in my inbox, with gems such as “the gender war was won many years ago” as well as blaming the “feminisation” of the publishing industry for the lack of young male readers.

I tried to explain that this had less to do with female authors, and more to do with issues around perception and adherence to stereotypes. It didn’t make a difference and after exhausting all options to try and change his mind, we agreed to disagree.

To anyone concerned about the youth of today, spend time with my book club and I can guarantee you’ll feel reassured about the future of society.

Still, I felt frustrated and disappointed that someone who had great respect in the field could have this opinion, and I knew it was part of the problem. After stewing for a few days, I did what all adults working with young people should do when discussing issues that directly involve them: I took it to the teens. I started a meeting of my fortnightly student book club with the question (Does the gender of an author or main character matter to you?) and to my surprise and delight, they spent the next 30 minutes discussing it. The consensus was that no, it didn’t matter and that a good story was a good story, regardless. To anyone concerned about the youth of today, spend time with my book club and I can guarantee you’ll feel reassured about the future of society.

There are countless reasons why I love my job, and many of them involve the opportunity and privilege I have to empower my students to build a better, fairer world in which gender equality is a real possibility. I love the chance to buy books that will teach them this, and show them the ways in which they can influence society to become a place where their gender does not define them. I love that for International Women’s Day this year, the principal at my school asked me and a colleague to visit each year level assembly and speak about the importance of women’s rights and feminism. And I love the Feminist Club. They are my favourite teens in the world (even more brilliant than the ones you read about in the greatest YA novels), and I know they will continue to do extraordinary things to shape their future as women, and for all women.


Karys McEwen is a Melbourne-based school librarian and writer. Find her on twitter @karysrhiann and instagram @middlechapter.

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