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What Does It Mean to Be Feminist in the Classroom?

anorton's picture

There is no universal answer to this question. The aim of examining what “feminism” looks like in the classroom inherently necessitates a stated, coherent definition of the word. “Feminism in the classroom” would not look the same among (a hypothetical group of) teachers who define themselves exactly alike in various categories—age, sex, gender, sexual preference, race, geographic location, political stance, cultural affiliation, etc. ad infinitum—let alone among the multi-faceted diversity of actual teachers. With each individual, a new definition of feminism emerges; with each new definition, a new way of enacting feminism in the classroom; with each new way, a new set of implications.

There are too many versions (individual or culturally/societally-agreed-upon definitions) of “feminism” to count or qualify, each with its own set of implications for teachers in the “feminist” classroom that, far from cohering with other versions of feminist instruction, are often contradictory. No one version of feminism can claim total superiority since each enacted version has both positive and negative implications for those involved. The versions I have managed to present in this paper are limited in number, but they serve to commence my theorizing about feminism in the classroom—a theoretical juncture between my developing definition of feminism and my work in a teacher preparation program. I did not make an attempt to distinguish between the positive and the negative implications in each version of feminism: How you interpret each implication will depend on your perspective and your goals. I invite you, reader, to not only assess the implications I have listed in terms of your understanding of feminism, but also to apply your own version(s) of feminism to the classroom and to explore its(/their) implications. Already, the title of this paper proves itself inadequate; there is not one version of feminism that can be enacted in the classroom. Instead, the question becomes: What might it mean to enact feminism in the classroom?

  • If it means celebrating the achievements and potentials of women, then it means:

    • revising the canon so that it includes more works by women

    • finding and incorporating contributions from women in all fields of study

    • dividing time spent on contributors to include men and women equally, even in cases in which women's contributions were less important

    • highlighting gender—using gender to determine what needs to be included in the canon

    • reinforcing existing gender roles by distinguishing the accomplishments of women

    • making the representation of women in school subjects the fulfillment of a quota

    • making curriculum only about who we define as successful—limiting an individual woman's importance to her success and demonstrated accomplishments

    • using demonstrated success to prove capabilities

  • If it means empowering the next generation of women, then it means:

    • providing good role models for female students: successful businesswomen, artists, politicians, activists, teachers, mothers, etc.

    • having teachers who model intelligence and competence (and who do not solely rely on their bodies for success)

    • realizing that some female students will want to rely on their bodies for success and not completely prohibiting their plans

    • bringing in examples of successful women—adjusting instructional time to allow for such inclusions

    • emphasizing gender—showing successful women

    • socializing women to be empowered in present society

    • accepting the structure of society in which it is important to be successful along certain lines, without necessarily questioning those lines

    • distinguishing between successful men and successful women

    • encouraging women to take on roles that they have conventionally filled

    • pushing women to excel

    • teaching male students not to fear/be intimidated by powerful women

    • teaching female students that they can be smart and successful without sacrificing romance and motherhood

  • If it means improving the lives of women, then it means:

    • reaching out to women in the community of the school as well as across the world

    • taking up potentially-controversial issues that are relevant/important to women

    • increasing multicultural awareness (in helping women outside of the culture of the school)

    • getting beyond culturally-based biases

    • attempting to help people better their lives according to their understandings of “better”—not imposing our ideas of success and betterment on vastly different people

    • attempting to understand others’ perspectives

    • encouraging/mandating social activism along certain lines

    • adjusting traditional/required curricula to allow students to focus on activism

    • casting blame on something (a system of oppression)—or someone (the oppressors, the perpetrators of continued oppression)

    • risking making students feel personally guilty for injustices

    • raising and actually allowing conflicting versions about what is best for women in classroom discussion and activism

    • not imposing teacher's judgements on students

  • If it means challenging the patriarchy, then it means:

    • radically shifting students’ relationships to authority

    • abandoning traditional, expository school style—relinquishing teacherly authority

    • functioning in an anarchistic, completely-individualized society to avoid creating a new, modified version of the patriarchy

    • challenging all forms of oppression and hegemony

    • refusing to adhere to conventional gender roles

    • restructuring curricula so that students can pursue their own activities instead of being required to satisfy the teacher’s demands

    • loosing a sense of complete authority as a teacher

    • creating classroom environments in which students (with different cultural expectations of authority) might not know how to act

  • If it means breaking down gender binaries, then it means:

    • confronting students’ home lives—cultures, religious beliefs, familial and personal convictions—in ways that might disturb or infuriate parents

    • dissolving sex-discriminatory institutions like Bryn Mawr College

    • forcing students to work together regardless of the comfort level of (adolescent) students with members of the conventionally-opposite sex

    • abolishing uniforms that clearly distinguish sex/gender

    • avoiding phrases like “boys and girls” and “ladies and gentlemen”

    • not emphasizing model roles for students to become

    • shaking students’ senses of their identities before they even develop

    • enacting the breakdown of other binaries in the classroom—providing more short-answer and essay questions on tests, more options for assignments

  • If it means valuing and representing all students equally, then it means:

    • working toward equal representation of genders in all classes—filling quotas

    • putting pressure on students to enter certain tracks in the effort of promoting equality

    • getting more male teachers in elementary schools to foster early role models for young male students

    • asking students to think for themselves rather than memorizing and repeating what the teacher has said

    • teaching students to value each other equally

    • starting from birth to prevent students’ learning gender differences in the first place

    • acknowledging, accepting, and working with the diverse learning needs and preferences of all students

    • not valuing students based on demonstrated worth—grades, appearance, apparent motivation, etc.—but on a belief in their inherent value as people

    • training teachers to remove all of the biases they hold that would affect how they are able to value students

    • encouraging students to speak but allowing them the right to remain silent

    • assessing students differently depending on their personal preferences to most-accurately reflect their capabilities

    • encouraging each student’s potentials according to how he/she would want to live

What it means to enact feminism in the classroom first requires that we know what it means to be feminist, that we know what “feminism” means; what “feminism” means is not universal. As such, there is no single correct version of feminism against which teachers who aim to be feminist teachers (not teachers of feminism or feminist studies but teachers who enact feminism) can measure their efforts, determine how successfully they enact feminism in their classrooms. What matters for teachers who aim to be feminist teachers is that they first define what feminism means for them and then strive to enact their versions in their classrooms. The only standards against which they can be held accountable are their own.

Letters in Conclusion

Anne, classmates, readers, future versions of myself,
I did not write this paper to complete an assignment. It would be a lie to say that it did not start out that way; but as it progressed I realized that what I wanted to do with it—what I wanted to get out of it, what I wanted you to be able to get out of it—would not conform to the structural implications of standard academic essays—least of all the objective, impersonal, “god-voiced” essays I prefer to write. Instead, I developed my ideas in the most generative form I could manage. I have chosen to leave my thoughts in lists—not to force them into paragraphs that cohere around a theme—for three interconnected reasons. 1). Too many of the ideas here disagree with each other to the extent that they could not possibly be enacted at one time, as part of one educational philosophy. This quantity of contradictions would have been represented in standard, paragraph-form papers no better than it was in my lists; indeed, it is likely that all of these contradictions in paragraphs would have seriously devalued the structure and intent of the paper. 2). The only solution to the first problem would have been to limit the exploration (even further) to the most compelling versions of feminism in the classroom, assess each of those versions in turn, and then devote a couple of paragraphs to reconciling or proving the irreconcilability of the contradictions across those versions. That type of analysis, while potentially interesting, was not the purpose of this paper. 3). The purpose of this paper was to serve as a resource for present and future teachers, and students, and readers interested in feminist theorizing, as well as any other interested readers. Lists are more-easily-referenced than standard papers. They allow readers—busy readers, readers who cannot and do not want to sift through hundreds of papers to find something useful to them—to quickly ascertain information relevant to their purposes. This paper was not meant to be a verbose, unread burden. It was meant as a quick consultation.


I did not write this paper for you in the sense of you as my teacher responsible for assigning me a grade for this class; I wrote it for you in the sense of you as an educator continually developing and refining her version of feminism in the classroom. I wrote this paper for me at this stage of my teacher training. How might I enact feminism in the classroom? Far from answering that question, this paper has started to open up the range of theories and implications that I must assess as I continue to develop my pedagogical practices. Too many (all?) of my papers bear no lasting import to my life or, I imagine, to the lives of any others. Perhaps the presence of this paper on the web—the knowledge that could be the first hit of a Google search—makes it feel more imperative to me that it be relevant, that it be accessible, that it serve a purpose. This paper was not about “what counts” to satisfy a requirement. Taking into mind your illuminating perspective on student motivation from the Curriculum & Pedagogy class meeting, I have tried to turn this paper into a reference tool that will be useful both to me and to others as we strive to enact our versions of feminism in the classroom.


Anne Dalke's picture

"I contain multitudes" (Walt Whitman)


I've gotten lots of experimental and personal explorations this time 'round. Along with the different formats have come some questions (some by the students, some by me) about how best to evaluate this sort of work.

Most striking to me are the gestures which ask "you" (that means me) to be the judge of the usefulness and "helpfulness" of this way of writing. That seems to me curious (not "feminist"? -- however that term is defined): to cede decision-making and judgment to another, to a voice of "authority" that is not one's own.

So: your project distinguishes itself, in part, by its refusal to make that move of writing "for" me as the evaluator of your work. You choose instead to write for me as an educator, still @ work on my classroom (and extra-classroom!) feminism. I thank you for recognizing that facet of self I prefer to keep forward, and to keep in play.

What is even more striking to me is your deliberate and thoughtful refusal to force your insights into standard paragraphs, and your concomitant ability to articulate what might be lost by that so-usual-as-to-be-unremarked paper-writing exercise: the quantity of contradictions, the scope of exploration, the ease of reference. How very Walt Whitman-ian of you! (I'm teaching Whitman in The Evolution of Stories next semester, and have been a little scared about doing him justice, since he's so counter-institutional that a classroom can hardly contain him. I intend now to use your paper as a resource for that exploration--for which also thanks.)

There are other dimensions of the paper I hope we can discuss, in time:

  • do all feminisms refuse the ideal of "superiority"?
  • where does the campaign of "challenging women" belong, in your catalogue?
  • how does temporality come into play in this list (am thinking esp. of "shaking students' senses of identities before they even develop")?
  • are there no values whatsoever shared amongst your various categories of feminism? what about multiplicity of values/points of view? what about accessibility?
  • I'm wondering why you insist that feminist teachers "must first define feminism," before they can enact it in the classroom: why do the standards against which they hold themselves accountable have to be top-down? Why not act first, then do a performative assessment retrospectively?