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A Response to a Picture and a High School Class

ssherman's picture

Sarah Sherman


Intro to Crit Fem Studies


How Should Feminism be Best Represented?

My Response to a Picture and High School



I went to a Jewish Day school near Washington, DC for high school.  I never considered myself one of the most liberal people or the most open to new things, but now having been to Bryn Mawr, I feel that I was much more open to new ideas than almost all of my classmates.  When starting this paper, I thought about my experiences with feminism and education.  I recalled in high school when I took a Jewish History elective entitled, "Women in Judaism", and the picture that in my mind, goes along with it.  My class was small and only had one guy in it.  I think most of the guys thought taking a class on women in Judaism was dumb and we always kind of joked about having a guy in our class. 

I took that class my junior year, during second semester and since in my school, the seniors graduate early (in February) and then take a trip to Israel, all of the spring of our junior year, the juniors are the oldest in the school and so on the last day of school, they get their "senior jerseys" and have a party in the parking lot before school and take lots of pictures.  So my junior year, when we were taking pictures, we decided to take a picture of our Women in Judaism class (though not everyone was in it, like our sole male classmate) and as a joke we decided to put our arms up and flex our muscles, trying to look strong. (See end for picture)  When I thought of this, I was trying to decide what it meant that we did this, and why we decided to.  Was it because we were making a joke that we were strong females because we were in the class?  Or was it because that was the first thing we thought of when we thought of feminism? 

I honestly do not remember why we decided to pose the way we did in the picture.  But thinking back on who was in the class, and the class itself, I'm almost positive we did it as a joke, to make fun of ourselves and the class itself.  Other people who weren't in our class have copies of this picture online, and one of them is captioned with one word, strength.  I think this is very ironic based on what I remember about the class.  I don't know everyone's motivation for taking the class, but as far as I am guessing, I think everyone thought it would be one of the most interesting classes offered for Jewish History/Rabbinics electives.  (We had to take two Jewish History/Rabbinics electives each year.)  And it was a subject that was not touched on in our core Jewish History classes or Rabbinics classes, which focused on major themes in Jewish history or the lifecycle or controversial topics like abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty.  And I think that was why it interested so many of us, we were teenage girls and wanted to learn more about where we belonged in Judaism, hoping that it wouldn't just be the place of an Orthodox woman, who in my view does not have equal rights, but if you ask them, they are completely happy with the rights they have.  So we chose a class that would hopefully interest us and make taking the Judaic elective not as miserable as it sometimes was.

Our teacher was an eclectic Jewish History teacher, (which isn't saying much considering the department is not known to be the most normal group of teachers) so I'm pretty sure we were joking about the class before it even started.  And I honestly don't remember much about what we learned in the class at all.  This means that the class did not fulfill the goals I had hoped it would, which would be to interest me and have me learn about women in Judaism and remember what I learned.  It's not just because it was high school that I don't remember the class.  I remember my favorite classes in high school, whether it was the teacher or the content that made the class interesting.  All I remember from the class was that there was some annoying group project at some point I believe.  Also one of my good friends and I sat next to each other and would right each other notes and draw pictures and make fun of our teacher and some of the other teachers we had.  The only content related thing from the class that I remember is that we would make fun of the boy in our class sometimes, asking if he felt uncomfortable, or just in general.

My high school was not the most tolerant of feminism.  First off, it's a Jewish school, so the beliefs about women in traditional Judaism sometimes show up.  There were teachers who were Orthodox and couldn't touch the girls or listen to them singing (if they weren't completely mixed in with the male voices) and there were people who preferred to pray in a non-egalitarian fashion-not mentioning the matriarchs in the prayers and sitting men and women separated.  There were boys who would crack jokes about how women shouldn't have rights and shouldn't be able to vote, and even more and I had a friend who would say things that sounded like she didn't believe women should have rights.  She would talk about how women shouldn't have the right to vote and how they should be in the kitchen and it was the man's job to work.  And while some girls may not have felt exactly this way, I know some of them would rather just marry rich and be the housewife instead of having to work the rest of their lives. 

So in the terms of feminism, I can't think of many ways in which my high school experience does not contrast with my experience at Bryn Mawr.  First off, I have many class choices if I want to take a class about feminism.  The people who are taking the classes are genuinely interested in the class.  Second, while the only class that I could take in high school touching on feminism was Phase Two according to McIntosh, I just searched the Tri-Co Course Guide and there are maybe three classes offered next semester that would be considered Phase Two.  Many classes here have already moved to Phase Five, meaning that the classes have been constructed to include everyone. (McIntosh, 3)  I also can't even think of anyone I've met here who has made it clear that while they are getting a good education and could get a good job at the end of it, that they would rather just marry well and be a housewife/mother. 

I guess the next issue that needs to be addressed is how feminism was represented in my high school and whether it needs to be changed, whether it is possible to be changed, and how it could be changed.  I believe that while it may be difficult to change, the way feminism is represented needs to change.  While it is impossible to change the way some sects of Judaism view women and their rights, it doesn't mean that people shouldn't be more aware of why women should be equal to men.  During minyan, (the 30 or 40 minute prayer session every morning) the egalitarian option should be truly egalitarian, not just girls and boys sitting together, but including the matriarchs in prayers and girls leading the prayers. In classes, women should be mentioned more.  In certain Jewish History classes there are so many women that could be talked about, especially during the period of the Holocaust, and that would be beneficial, and even though we would like to move out of McIntosh's Phase Two, that phase is better than Phase One, where women aren't mentioned at all.  In English, there could be more books about and by women that are being read.  I can only think of four, maybe five books that we read during my three and a half years of high school that were by women.  During Rabbinics classes, the rights/role of women in different sects of Judaism could be discussed.  When I was a student, both of the core Rabbinics classes were taught from an Orthodox perspective, with barely any conversation about what other sects of Judaism believed.  While these changes don't seem that far out, my high school did not often revise classes.  They were revising the English and History curriculums while I was a student, but I can see it being much more of a struggle to change the Judaic components of this.  The Jewish History part will be easier to change, but they still need a teacher to agree to teach an elective about feminism.  And while I feel part of the Rabbinics department would be open to the changes, I don't think they all would.  But I believe the school is capable of making some changes and starting to progress forward.

This paper had the option of being creative.  For me, being creative is also entering the personal realm.  So I decided to enter the personal realm and take one of my experiences with feminism and education and respond to how I felt about it and how I feel it could be improved and changed.  I also responded to the picture from my class because that was one the things that first helped me arrive to this topic, that I thought of the picture.  I think that if people learned about feminism earlier and had more positive experiences with it earlier, and then there would be more people out there who consider themselves feminists, whatever it means to them. 


Works Cited:

Peggy McIntosh. "Interactive Phases of Curricular Re-vision: A Feminist Perspective." Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 1983.


Women in JudaismWomen in Judaism: Some of the members of my Women in Judaism class.


Anne Dalke's picture

Representing Jewish Women in High School


I'm delighted that you began experimenting, this time 'round, with both the personal and the creative, and with both the visual and the written as well. Makes my reading much more engaging!

And there's much, much more you might do in the direction of thinking about the represention of women in Judaic studies. Some of your classmates have also begun to do some work in this direction; you might find of special interest both sarina's Orthodox Judaism and Feminism (for filling out some of the dimensions of "belief") and mpottash's Inclusive Curriculums (for thinking about construction of history).

The paper you've written is very conversational; you are using it to tell a story about your experience. The next challenge would be to turn that story of the past into a vision of the future: could you actually re-design a curriculum, imagined as a proposal for your h.s.? How would you pitch it, to faculty, to parents, to students? What would be the logic of adding such a class?

You end your paper by saying that if "more people" learned about feminism earlier, and had "more positive experiences with it," they "would consider themselves feminists." Is that y/our goal? If so, is it the goal of the school? (You say, for instance, that "we would like to move out of McIntosh's Phase 2," but I don't know who "we" is in that sentence....) And if feminism is not one of the school's goals: how to work towards it?

You actually don't locate your school very clearly in terms of beliefs or goals. What branch of Judaism does it represent? What is the theology, and what are the politics, of the school? (You mention that the history--or is it Jewish history?--department "is not known to be the most normal group," but I don't know what constitutes the norm there....)

I also found myself wondering why your h.s. "doesn't often revise classes." Is there something larger @ work here than politics, something that has to do with inertia, or time, or....? What is the attitude toward change, generally, @ your school? As a nudge towards thinking about how change happens--and how we might change educational stories in particular--see Evolution and Literature: Notes on Change and Order (a talk given in my Emerging Genres class last spring) and also the essay on which that conversation was based: "From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide to Inquiry," Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 2007 (90, 1/2): 301-323.