Welcome to Teaching Feminism, a series about equality in the classroom. Teaching feminism is about so much more than teaching girls. We need to teach all of our students to respect everyone, no matter what. Teaching feminism talks about just that. Have your own story about these issues? Share it here.
“Miss,” one of my students approached me after class. “You’re a feminist, right?”
“Yes,” I replied cautiously, wondering where this conversation is going to go. It was, after all, the beginning of the school year and I didn’t know these students very well yet.
“OK, so I have a question for you. Why do you think women are better than men?”
I stopped in my tracks a little bit. Is this what my students thought being a feminist means? If so, it’s no wonder so many of them reject the term. I explained to the student that I do not, in fact, believe that women are better than men. What I believe is that women have been told that they are lesser people than men for a very long time and that, as a feminist, I, along with many other women, believed in evening out the playing field and allowing women the same opportunities as men.
Seemingly satisfied with that answer, or perhaps late for another class, my student nodded and shuffled out of the room. This got me thinking, though, about why this particular student — and probably more who hadn’t bothered to approach me about it — believed that feminists think women are better than men.
I suppose it’s no surprise that many people have this attitude towards feminists. We do, after all, spend a great deal of time championing women. In order to combat decades of magazines showing only the skinniest, photoshopped images of models, we teach young women that their bodies are something to be celebrated rather than ashamed of. In order to combat decades of women being erased from history books and from school curricula, we give young women a plethora of examples of famous women who have accomplished great feats. In order to combat decades of women being told that they are not as good as men, we tell young women that they can do anything they put their minds to. Girl power!
In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Lisa Belkin wonders whether or not we are doing our girls a disservice by championing their gender so much. She writes:
How to reconcile these two contradictory goals? To teach our girls that females are awesome and also teach them that their gender is not the whole of who they are? To simultaneously celebrate being a girl and move past the point where it makes a whit of difference what sex you are?
These are great questions, and ones every parent and teacher, feminist or not, should ask themselves. How do we teach young women that they are not to be defined by their gender while still empowering them?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this dilemma. Until women are treated the same as men — until they receive equal pay for equal work, until they can walk home at night without fear of street harassment or worse, until they are not force-fed narratives about what they should want out of life — it seems we will continue to have to champion girls as a gender. Even though the ideal world would mean that it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a boy, the fact is that it does matter, and we have to work within those parameters.
While I do not believe that girls are better than boys, I do want my students to be treated equally, both in and out of my classroom. I strive for equality, and that is what makes me a feminist. As such, I will continue to encourage the young women and men in my classes equally based on their unique skills and interests. Hopefully, I can also teach my students that this is what feminism is really about.
Photo Credit: campanatrán