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.

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Photo Credit: sbeez


Maddie Kehoe
amanda Kehoe5 years ago

Why would you not be a feminist? :/ Especially if you know enough about it to be teaching it?

Rowena Thornton
Rowena Thornton5 years ago

(Continued)...For this reason I am loath to call myself a feminist but I will ALWAYS call myself an egalitarian and believe very strongly that whilst gender should not be ignored, the differences between the sexes are largely irrelevant. Regarding employment a person's skills are important, not their gender, race, background or anything else.

Rowena Thornton
Rowena Thornton5 years ago

I think it's high time the word 'Feminism' was replaced with the word 'Egalitarianism' or 'Gender-Equality' or perhaps 'Humanism' as has already been mentioned. I am completely in favour of gender-equality but see 'Feminism' as a misnomer. The various definitions of feminism on here are quite correct but it seems to me that one can share these enlightened and liberating opinions without needing to resort to a term which is, frankly, loaded with negativity (and even sexism).
I refer simply to the WORD 'Feminism' and not to anything it is supposed to stand for when I say this. To me the term - the word in itself - seems to imply superiority of women when, supposedly, what we are all wishing for and aiming for is equality of the sexes. Yes, so men in general have treated women in general terribly for centuries, but that is no reason to try to beat them at their own game, or at least to appear to, as the word suggests. Women have proved themselves to be just as capable as men and we've shown we can be independent and strong without having to resort to the nasty stereotype that, for better or worse, the word 'feminist' often conjures up. I can't stand all the casual sexism thrown against men these days: "Oh, he's just a man, he can't help being stupid." etc. This would absolutely not be tolerated if said about a woman. It should not be tolerated about anybody, full stop.
For this reason I am loath to call myself a feminist but I will ALWAYS call myself an egalitarian and believe

Jytte Nhanenge
Jytte Nhanenge5 years ago

Part 2) Ecofeminism is an umbrella concept and means different things to different people. In my perception it is a view that explains the habitual masculine domination of all that is feminine, which manifests in modern patriarchal society. This gender domination starts with energy, rather than biology. Hence, both men and women are doing the domination, and both men and women are being subordinated. However, the energy used to dominate is masculine or yang (competition, maximization, exploitation, etc.) and the subordinated energy is feminine or yin (cooperation, optimization, conservation etc.) It manifests as the political and economic elite’s domination of society and exploitation of nature. If we do not end this imbalanced yang domination, and create a balanced yin/yang world, we will beyond doubt end all life on Mother Earth.

There is much to say about the issue, but it is not difficult or academic. You are welcome to visit my new website, where I have tried to explain it in plain language. The website is meant for people like you because I believe that it is the average person who will have to save our wonderful world. The politicians are too engaged in the masculine domination of society and exploitation of nature.

The website is already published, but not yet launched: http://www.intsangano.com/

Jytte Nhanenge
Jytte Nhanenge5 years ago

Part 1) Thank you for the article Ashley and thank you for making me aware Richard.

As Richard says, my view on feminism is expanded, going beyond the pure biological men-women division. It was in many ways the focus on biology that caused the concept “feminism” to become sensitive and inconsistent, since also many men find an equal world to be beneficial for humanity. Moreover, the fact that “the first wave” of feminism wanted women to be equal to men economically, no matter which consequences such a competitive view would have for poor people and the natural environment, caused serious discord. Fortunately, feminism has come far since those days. We are now into “the third wave” of feminism, which embraces all that is considered feminine including the natural environment. Hence, as far as I am concerned: if we want a world without any form of domination, we must go beyond feminism and into “ecological feminism” or in short ecofeminism.

Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

Thanks for the article!

Charli S.
Charlotte S5 years ago

Shouldn't we be teaching humanism? I left the feminist movement many years ago when it seemed that most women were more interested in bashing men then creating a climate of equality. I've walked the walk instead of just talking. I was one of the 1st women in an all male brigade. I went to the field with the men and did the same jobs as they did. I didn't ask for special treatment. If we want both boys and girls to grow up with the idea that they can do anything then we must move away from the word feminism and move toward humanism. Only by validating both sexes will we ever be equal.

tiffany t.
tiffany t5 years ago

equals we can strive but I also see male nurses who practice in Obstetrics getting sideways glances from fellow peers.

Nancy Black
Nancy Black5 years ago

I believe in equality for all; I do realize our culture has stereotyped the sexes, but as an individual I try to treat everyone equally and that's how I expect to be treated. I fight for equality. I don't consider that makes me a feminist; I consider that makes me a decent human being.

Antonia Windham
Antonia Windham5 years ago

Margaret B, women's "real role" in society's whatever they want it to be so long as any given individual's capable of filling a given role. Just like men.

There's no law of the universe that assigns "real roles" to people based on sex.