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'Provocative’ Book Calls for Feminist Schools

July 3, 2020

Book coverHow Girls Achieve by Northwestern University’s Sally Nuamah “provides an original lens on gendered educational inequalities and ways of dismantling them,” Rachel Marcus wrote in the journal Gender & Development. 

Nuamah’s book calls for creating “feminist schools” and including campus sexual violence statistics into school rankings. “It is at times provocative, and as such should be of interest to anyone engaged in education or concerned with progressive social change,” Marcus wrote.

Nuamah, assistant professor at the School of Education and Social Policy, argues that schools can be engines that transform society; instead, they often leave scars. In How Girls Achieve, she looks across race and gender to shed light on the threats and unequal costs—school closure, sexual harassment, punishment—facing poor Black girls and explores how schools can overcome those obstacles.

She argues for “feminist schools” or schools that act as safe spaces that redistribute power, actively teach girls how and when to challenge society’s norms, and allow them to carve out their own paths to success. How Girls Achieve combines political science theory, lessons from educational practice, and application to public policy.

In the appendix, Nuamah includes students’ letters to young Black victims of police violence, and testimony about the impact the Black Lives Matter movement has had on their thinking, which were based on a ‘womanist writing activity.’

“The book responds to a concern that promoting gender equality in education is often reduced to provision of toilets and supplies for managing menstruation, while a focus on test scores, and even the development of socioemotional skills represents a very limited vision of what education can and should seek to achieve,” Marcus wrote.

Nuamah’s research combines race, gender, public schools and political behavior. The winner of an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, she’s working on another book on the politics of school closure. Her research is also looking at the punishment of Black women and girls and its political consequences.

Nuamah also is founder of Herstory: the TWII Foundation Girls Scholarship and created an award-winning film based on this work.

“Girls’ education enables global development,” Nuamah said. “By sharing these girls' stories about how they are succeeding in school and trying to break the cycle of poverty -- in addition to actually providing a way to help them overcome obstacles through scholarships -- we are continuing the conversation and empowering women to positively change the world.”

How Girls Achieve explores the specific challenges for girls of different economic and racial backgrounds in three different schools in Ghana, South Africa and the U.S. Nuamah then examines data on confidence, its role in enhancing academic achievement and its limitations, drawing on 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) data for the three countries.

“She presents nuances in the relationship between confidence, economic background, and mathematics scores between the three countries (and between racial groups in the US), finding that confidence plays a role in improving students’ academic achievements, both among girls and boys,” Marcus wrote. But confidence alone “cannot alone bridge learning and achievement gaps that are based on inequalities by race, class, and gender.”

How Girls Achieve, which won a 2020 Prose Award in Education Practice by the American Publishers Association, is "short, accessible, and engagingly written. It explains key concepts clearly,” Marcus wrote. “As part of the book’s commitment to practical action, it provides a Feminist Schools Toolkit – a set of questions for educators to think through in pursuit of creating feminist schools – and suggested additional reading, adding further value to this stimulating read.”

Read the full review in Gender & Development.