One approach to creating a gender-sensitive atmosphere in a working-class urban high school...
My major goal in teaching a women's studies elective was to enhance the self-esteem of my students by validating their own life experience as females in a male world and deepening their appreciation for their own gender. In the Fall of 1989, I taught three classes in American Government: Women's Issues. Two of these classes had a majority of females with two or three males in each class. The third class was half male and half female.
Whether they considered themselves to be feminists or not, the girls in all female classes were able to agree on some basic issues from the beginning of the class:
- Violence against women is wrong, no matter the reason behind it.
- Each individual woman has the right to decide how she wants to live her own life.
- Males and females have the same intellectual capacity.
- Caring for children is just as important as working outside the home.
- Equal pay is the only fair method of compensating workers.
- We would all be better off if the battle of the sexes was over and males and females could live in harmony and equality.
Agreement regarding these simple propositions emerged early in the term as the class explored current issues facing women. We didn't have to debate them over and over. The class was free to go on to issues of morality, personal goals, introspection, and a deeper appreciation of women's roles and women's history.
For example, one of the term projects involved acting out the role of a particular woman in history while others watched the presentation and asked questions. The "actresses" dressed up in costumes, put on skits, brought in artwork and videos, and staged debates. They enthusiastically became courageous historical figures. In the second term project, small groups of students made themselves into "experts" on a contemporary women's issue. They were able to handle such topics as rape, teenage pregnancy, and female Russian immigrants with maturity and a degree of academic excellence surprising in high school students.
A group of three students became "experts" on pornography. Not only did they contact the organization Women Against Pornography, but they also went through magazines to find women's bodies being used for advertising, presented a religious point of view on pornography (according to the religion of one of the girls), and researched the sociological work on the connection between violent pornography and actual violence. Another group visited a shelter for battered women, interviewed a counselor about spouse abuse, and presented their findings to the class.
At the end of the term, I asked the students to react anonymously, in writing, to the Women in History class. Following are among the comments:
- I think that this class is important for girls. They have to learn to be proud that they are women.
- I think you've taught us all to say what we want, and to think before we speak.
- This class gave me the ammunition for when I fight with my boyfriend.
- It left us with a power of mind, a way to express ourselves, and for that I shall remember this class.
The one class that was mixed male and female, however, was a different story. The class was never able to get beyond the aforementioned basic ideas. Even when an issue had been dealt with on a rational level—e.g., that violence against women is wrong—the male students in the class were never able to take the issue as their own, as part of their own thinking. They could not help but say at some future date, If she were my girlfriend, I'd slap her. The males absolutely refused to resolve the issues in their minds. Some students thought about them for the moment, but then were drawn into the general male rebellion in the class. Most male students, or at least the most outspoken ones, engaged in the battle for machismo. They were so afraid that identifying with or trying to understand women's issues would make them seem feminine that they not only refused to take the issues seriously but also resorted to the ugliest of responses. They formed a backlash against every feminist idea presented in the class and felt that it was perfectly okay, and even required of them by the other male students, to make hateful remarks:
- She just needs a good fuck.
- Who would want to rape her, she's so ugly.
- I'm sick of talking about women.
- Women can never be equal.
- Who cares what women went through.
- What do you know? You're only a woman.
- Women's place is in the kitchen and the bedroom.
- Women don't belong in the military; they can't shoot a gun or carry heavy equipment. They're too scared; they'll start crying.
- You women have it so easy. All you have to do is sit home and take care of babies.
In addition to the remarks, the males in the class would refuse to let the girls state their own opinions on the issues. If one or two girls were brave enough to argue with one of the boys, they would each have a cutting comment to try to silence her. Most of the girls learned early to keep their thoughts to themselves. The course not only failed to create a deeper understanding and appreciation of women's issues but I also think it was detrimental to the girls. They witnessed the deeply-felt hatred that some of the boys felt toward women.
This situation may seem to some people (such as a few of the male teachers in my department) as the perfect chance to educate young men about women's concerns — to "tame the natives." This belief does not take into account the deep-seated misogyny of many male adolescents and the even deeper feeling among young males that if they don't put women down and otherwise prove their superiority over females, they will be perceived by other males as a "sissy" or "faggot." The purpose of this paper is to build a case for all-female classes when the purpose of the class is to build the self-esteem and validation of the girls in the class. I did not find it possible, in a mixed class, to create the atmosphere necessary to encourage that type of growth and reflection. The only way to educate young men about women's issues and to help them delve into their own male issues is to do so in small, all-male groups, with a leader who is just as much a counselor as a teacher. If the goal of a women's issues class is to build the esteem and self-confidence of girls, such classes need to be all female.
(Excerpted and reprinted with the kind permission of Radical Teacher: Chhaya Dey, Lori Fritsch, and Prudence S. Posner, 1992, A Question of Agency: Three Approaches to Creating a Gender-Sensitive Atmosphere in a Working-Class Urban High School, Radical Teacher, 41, pp. 24-28.)