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How a few good women made gender an issue in Ontario’s high schools

The founders of the Miss G Project, a grassroots feminist organization that lobbied the Ontario Ministry of Education to include a gender studies course in the high school curriculum, at the Gladstone Hotel.

Monica Ghabrial

It's Friday night at the Gladstone Hotel, and the dance floor is packed with an unusual mix of revellers. Activist Judy Rebick is rocking out to the Motown cover band, singer Sarah Harmer is sipping a beer by the bar and journalist Michele Landsberg is making her way through the crowd. Young women in neon wigs and pose for photos as a slide show of notable women floats across a screen on stage. And Kathleen Wynne, Ontario's first female premier, is here.

It's a fitting tribute to the young women who founded the Miss G Project, a grassroots feminist organization that lobbied the Ontario Ministry of Education to include a gender studies course in the high school curriculum. Tonight's party is a celebration of their success. Starting in September , gender studies will be offered to all Ontario high school students as an official part of the curriculum.

"I just want to say how clear it is to me that these guys are changing the world," Ms. Wynne says from the stage. The course "is going to give young people the opportunity to see the world in a different way, and to see themselves in a different way."

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Sexual and gender-based violence is a pervasive issue for high school students. A 2008 report on school safety in the Toronto District School Board revealed that 21 per cent of students surveyed knew of at least one student who had been sexually assaulted in the previous two years. Almost 90 per cent said they would not report a sexual assault to the authorities. The suicides of Canadian teens Amanda Todd and Rehteah Parsons, the rape trial involving high school athletes in Steubenville, Ohio, and even the contentious relationship between singers Rihanna and Chris Brown have given rise to a new mainstream conversation about how to stem gender-based violence and bullying.

After eight years of lobbying and campaigning, the Miss G Project has made this discussion a part of the education system, with a course that helps young women and men think critically about how gender roles are constructed and perceived.

"Classrooms provide safe space for students to discuss these issues," said Sarah Ghabrial, one of the five women who founded the group. "When we go into high schools and workshops, we see how hungry students are for this discourse."

Some teachers have developed and taught gender studies independently, but starting in the fall, the course will be officially added to the Social Sciences and Humanities curriculum available to secondary schools across the province, as a Grade 11 elective. "It's not enough to have a conversation about gender studies once a month," said Anne-Marie Longpre, a teacher at Toronto's West End Alternative and one of the educators who helped develop the gender studies course material. "The institutional validation of this course is so important."

Ms. Ghabrial was herself eager to learn about gender roles and politics when she was an undergrad student at Western University. In 2005 she and friend Sheetal Rawal were sitting in a dorm room discussing what they'd learned in their women's studies class when it dawned on them that the material should be taught in high school. "We were reflecting on our own high school experiences and how pervasive gender-based violence, harassment and sexual assault was, "she recalled.

Together with their friends Lara Shkordoff, Laurel Mitchell and Dilhani Mohan, Ms. Ghabrial and Ms. Rawal launched an awareness campaign to encourage teachers, students and activists to write letters to the Ministry of Education expressing support for the gender studies course. They called themselves the Miss G Project after a figure in an 1873 polemic against the education of women: a woman who, according to the author, excelled a university student but forgot she was a woman, tried to study "in a man's way, and died in the effort."

Throughout their eight-year campaign, the Miss G Project held workshops and events across the province and worked with teachers to help them develop gender studies courses at their own schools. The project also garnered the support of teachers, activists and politicians, including Ms. Wynne, who was one of the group's first major supporters.

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"I believe that it's really important that young people have the opportunity to explore these issues, to think about equity, to think about gender and the roles that we're socialized into," Ms. Wynne said in an interview.

The new gender studies course will give students the opportunity to analyze a range of issues, including gender-based violence, workplace equity, and representations of men and women in media and pop culture.

"I feel like it was the only high school class I ever really learned anything in," said former student Josh Shier. Now 23, the Toronto-based fashion stylist enrolled in an early iteration of the course when he was in high school.

It's impossible to say whether taking a course like this would have made a difference for Ms. Todd or Ms. Parsons. But it did have a major impact on Mr. Shier's life. "I was gay, dealing with a lot of bullying and I had suicidal thoughts," he said. "Taking that course made me feel a little bit better about being different."

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