I wasn’t planning on teaching feminism to my freshmen English class — if I had, perhaps I would have come at it with a better approach — but it came up organically, so I ran with it. My students were analyzing a poem about human equality and having trouble getting through the figurative language to the meaning, so I turned to the poet’s biography for some assistance.
“What if I told you that the poet is a feminist?” I asked, hoping to provide a clue.
“What’s a feminist?” was one of the kid’s immediate response.
Ah, a teachable moment, I thought. Rather than answering, I posed the same question right back to the class and planned to write the responses back on the board. However, their overwhelmingly negative responses stopped me from doing that. Their descriptions of feminists were stereotyped ideas like “they think they’re better than men,” “they’re bitches,” and “they don’t shave their legs.”
Realizing I first needed a better, more concrete definition of “feminism” before we could go any further, I flashed back to an experience I had when I myself was a high school student. My history teacher, known throughout the school as the unabashed “feminist,” made it a point to have students who had misconceptions of feminism read the definition aloud from the dictionary. At the time, I think I rolled my eyes, yet here I was as an adult nearly a decade later borrowing her lesson for my own class.
One student read to the class that a feminist was someone who believed in equality between men and women. “It’s as simple as that, a feminist believes in equality,” I emphasized. Thinking I had gotten the point across, I asked the students whether a man could be a feminist. They laughed at the very notion and said a collective “No!”
Okay, so clearly they hadn’t quite grasped it as well as I had hoped. “Yes, men can be feminists,” I said before ultimately proclaiming, “I’m a feminist.”
“YOU’RE a feminist?!” came a collective shout from the students.
“Yeah, I consider myself a feminist,” I said. Honestly, it felt a little weird to say that because, at 23, it was probably the first time I had declared it aloud. Though I had been in favor of total gender equality for a while, the term “feminist” had truthfully seemed alienating even to me. Yet in the face of kids with complete misperceptions of the term, I finally felt the responsibility of owning the label.
At that point, I was curious whether my students were willing to stand with me. “Now that you know what a feminist means, would any of you consider yourself a feminist?” A couple of reluctant hands went in the air. “So you don’t think men and women are equal?” I pressed to the rest, hoping to convince at least some of the girls to concede this point, but they didn’t budge.
One male student objected to the idea that men and women could be equal since men are inherently stronger. I countered by pointing out some famous women that could presumably bench press more than I could. “But what if your life is at stake? Do you want a woman to really be a fireman?” he asked.
“Sure, a woman could be a firefighter,” I said. “If she’s strong enough to do the job, she should be hired, right?”
“I wouldn’t let her save me!” he said.
For other students, the problem was that they already viewed men and women as equal. I pointed out the more accessible ongoing inequalities like the wage gap and the fact that we’ve never had a female U.S. president as examples. The same student who thought men and women were “already equal” then expressed that the thought of having a female president was a bad idea.
Go figure, it was mostly males participating in the conversation on women’s rights. I was encouraged when “Erin,” a straight A student, was the first girl to start taking an active role in the conversation. Then I was immediately discouraged by how quick she was to limit her own rights.
“I think men are better with money,” Erin said. “When I need money, I got to my dad. My mom has to ask for money like me.”
“Okay, well that might be the setup in your household, but lots of families have different systems,” I said.
“But that’s the way it’s supposed to be!” Erin exclaimed. “Daddies work and mommies stay at home.”
It took more debate to convince Erin that feminism does not deny women the right to stay at home and be mothers, but instead gives them the option to choose how they live their lives. Ultimately, the class’ consensus was that women should at least have the ability to work, even if some, like Erin, still personally disagreed.
At the end of the period, hoping that the conversation was useful, I asked Erin whether she felt more positive toward gender equality.
“Um… I have to ask my dad. I believe what he tells me to believe,” she told me.
If this were a sitcom, writers couldn’t have scripted a better response. It took all of my professionalism to neither laugh nor bang my head against the wall in this moment. Still, I took heart in knowing that even if they weren’t leaving my class calling themselves “feminists,” at least I had provided them with some food for thought.
On the last day of school that year, however, it was my students who gave me some (literal) food for thought: they presented me with a cake topped with icing that read “Mr. M, The Feminist.” All right, so clearly they still thought the idea of a man being a feminist was a bit of a joke. To be fair, though, I thought the same at their age. There’s so much stigma attached to the term that it’ll take maturity and life experience for most of these students to come around. In the meantime, if I became their number one association when they heard the word feminist rather than some of those other negative stereotypes they shouted out initially, it seemed like a net positive.
For a much better approach to teaching feminism in the classroom, check out this article by Ashley Lauren Samsa. I certainly wish I had read her whole “Teaching Feminism” series before stumbling blindly onto the topic in my own classroom.