Teaching Feminism: When You’re Not a Feminist
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.
How does someone teach feminism if they are not a feminist?
Through my years of teaching and activism, I’ve been asked this question quite a bit. It seems that most people, whether they consider themselves feminists or not, understand the importance of teaching typically marginalized voices and areas of history. There is a huge movement in history classes to teach primary source documents as supplements to — or sometimes instead of — the textbooks because textbooks rarely give space to marginalized people throughout history.
Textbook makers have historically quite literally shoved information they deem unimportant into boxes in the margins of larger articles. The message there is that while this huge war was going on that you are reading about in an entire chapter, women were doing just enough to fit into this tiny little box on one of the pages. In fact, women were the backbone of society in many cases, fighting the good fight on the home front, and often charged with keeping the family alive.
It’s no secret, then, that women’s voices need to be heard and women’s participation in history needs to be studied. Most teachers understand this; however, relegating the history of women to a unit or an extended mention within a larger section of history isn’t enough. The study of women needs to be integrated within the curriculum, but how does one incorporate feminism into the classroom outside of a unit on the history of women if he or she is not a feminist?
Many people do not consider themselves feminists. Whether it is because of an aversion to the f-word because of past images of bra-burning man-haters circulating pop culture or because many believe that feminism only serves middle-class, white women, there is a significant portion of the population that avoids describing themselves as feminists. As one who embraces feminism, I would like to open up the definition of the term a bit. Do you believe that women deserve a voice? Do you believe that women should be treated equally to men? Then you are a feminist.
Whether you embrace the term or not, a belief that all students should be treated equally and equitably is vital. The demographic makeup of our classrooms is changing rapidly, and a teacher who discriminates will not succeed. One of the basic tenants of public education is that every student deserves an education, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, or any other factor. Recognizing that all students deserve to be treated equally is the first step to incorporating feminism in the classroom.
The second step is the most crucial. Incorporating feminism into teaching is not necessarily about designing units around the accomplishments of women; it is much more about making a conscious effort to be aware of what you say between the lines of your curriculum. Treating students equally is so much more than just giving each student the same opportunities in the classroom. Kids are extremely adept at picking up on a teacher’s attitude from the seemingly innocuous things we say.
When a teacher teases two male students who are goofing off in the back of the classroom by saying something like, “You two can hold hands after class, if you like, but not now,” we may see this as amusing classroom management, but students see this as a clear stance on sexuality. When teachers turn the other way when they see boys whistling at girls in the hallway, students see this as a comment on how women should be treated. One doesn’t have to be a feminist to be a role model for students when it comes to how people should be treated. Leading by example, in cases like these, is far more important than explicitly commenting on gender issues. Hopefully, even if teachers don’t feel comfortable teaching feminism, they are able to show students what equality truly is.
Photo Credit: sbeez