To understand the girls they are teaching, today’s teachers need skills in more than just their discipline.
In particular, educators need the tools to address the often contradictory world in which girls live. On the one hand, that world discourages them from doing math and science and hyper-sexualizes them in the media, and on the other, invites them to engage in feminist activism to combat it all.
The recent Educating Girls Conference held at the Chapin School featured a number of feminist educators and academics, including Dr. Nancy Hopkins of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Lyn Mikel Brown of Colby College and author of Packaging Girlhood.
Sponsored by NYSAIS (New York State Association of Independent Schools), the conference provided participating educators and administrators with invigorating ideas on how to re-imagine their curriculum and school communities with girls and women in mind.
Gender Equity in Science Higher Education
In her opening keynote, Hopkins described how she came to teach science at MIT. Dotted with anecdotes about finding her identity as a scientist amidst the backdrop of the women’s movement and the civil rights era, Hopkins didn’t realize that female professors were being systematically discriminated against at universities like Harvard and MIT until 20 years into her career. During that time, she “really believed” that her “gender was irrelevant” and “fled from feminists.”
But, as she continued teaching and researching, she realized over and again that “women of equal merit were valued and rewarded less than men” for doing the same research. Hopkins was so demoralized that it wound up shaking up her entire view of the field.
“It was so antithetical to my belief that science was a meritocracy,” she said.
Today, Hopkins sees the fruits of her labors working on gender equity in higher education. The president of MIT is a woman, three out of five academic deans are women, and two out of six department heads are women.
Indeed, the percentage of women professors at MIT is higher than the percentage of women in the U.S. Senate. And, while the university still attracts more men than women, women make up 45% of undergraduates.
Even with this kind of progress, however, Hopkins has an urgent call to action for educators. Girls are still discouraged from taking science and math courses in high school due to dated and sexist attitudes about interest and ability.
“As teachers, we are obliged to change these attitudes,” she said.
Fighting the Sexualization of Girls in the Media
These sexist attitudes are not getting any better as girls and women are increasingly hyper-sexualized by the media. Lyn Mikel Brown’s talk explored how the media packages girlhood in overtly sexual wrapping.
Brown described the myth of consumer-oriented “girl power” as anything but empowering, as it merely offers girls vapid and even destructive ways in which they can acquire power, namely, “the power to make yourself over; the power to shop; the power to be sexy or hot; and the power to fight with other girls.”
Indeed, the only way that one can really be a girl is by still putting boys at the center of her emerging identity. She can only be, as Brown says, either “for the boys or one of the boys.” Either way, these hetero-normative expectations don’t give girls a shot at developing an identity that’s truly their own.
Brown envisions a world where the media depicts “real girls with real interests; real bodies; gender diversity with different femininities; true female friendships rather than female fighting; and parents as allies.”
So what can teachers do to be part of this movement?
Brown’s answer is clear. She reminds us that we are teaching “media savvy girls” and that the only way to make change is to be their allies in combatting destructive media messages.
She calls on educators to start the conversation on media literacy with young girls; to know what our girls like and why; to teach girls how to take back the language of power, identity, and choice; and to encourage girls to have a critical voice and take part in activism such as the SPARK Summit.
Engaging Girls in Feminist Activism
Listening to Hopkins and Brown reminded me of the work I do each day as a feminist educator. I also presented at this conference and shared my work on engaging girls (and boys) in feminist activism. I highlighted the ways in which an English class can be the site for change in the larger world, making personal stories into political and, indeed, public acts.
My students work on combating the commercial sexual exploitation of children by supporting GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services); they testify at street harassment council hearings sharing their personal stories to make policy change; they have launched a movement to end the sexualization of girls in the media at the SPARK Summit; they blog about art and culture using a feminist lens; and they blog about being male allies to their female peers.
Educating girls is about giving them the chance to define and navigate the world on their own terms. Moreover, it’s also about educating boys to understand how they have been given toxic definitions of masculinity in relation to girls and women.
Both girls and boys together can learn from feminist approaches in the classroom to make a more just world for young people of all gender identities. Indeed, with gender justice comes racial and economic justice as well. That’s the world our students need and want; that’s the world I’m working for in my classroom.
Photo credit: Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan