Why Feminism Should Be Taught In School

Should feminism be taught in school?

It may not surprise you that my answer is an emphatic YES.  Of course, it is important to present students with multiple perspectives so that they may see that, historically, people with different perspectives have caused much unrest and, from that unrest comes progress.  I would hope that any literature or history teacher would agree with this.

Historically, women have been quite literally marginalized – relegated to boxes in the margins of textbooks as if to say, “This is what the women were doing back at home while the men were off at war.  It fits into this little box which must mean that it wasn’t that important and it won’t be on the test.”  This is not a new concept, and teachers have been incorporating texts regarding marginalized people into their curriculum for a very long time.

It is not really a question of whether or not this should be done, but I wonder how many people have really explored why it is important to incorporate feminism into the curriculum.  If one
day such classes were taught in schools to liberal arts colleges, it
would be a day to celebrate.

First, the study of feminism can “reinvigorate girls’ sense of self-worth and to help pupils think about the gender implications of their language and image.” It is important for girls today to think about their role models.  Who are young women looking to as role models today?  Miley Cirus?  Britney Spears?  If these women are not good role models for young women, who is?  Simone deBeauvoir?  Susan B. Anthony?  Think of all that today’s young women can learn from these strong, self-assured agents of historical change.  By holding the work of these latter women up to be seen as at least as important as the wars fought by and the leaders who were typically men, we show young women that being strong and confident is nothing to be ashamed of, and we show young men that strong and confident women are to be respected, not coaxed into becoming something else, something they can control.

Which leads me to my second point: Girls are accepting sexual assault at school as a fact of life.  I am not saying that young women are being joked about and taunted by young men at school because they lack confidence and strength.  I am, however, saying that I think there is something that tells these girls that if they don’t let boys treat them this way, boys will not like them and there are few things worse when you’re in high school.  By teaching students about feminism, we are showing both young women and young men that equality in human rights is important, and treating someone as if they are beneath you is unacceptable.

Girls are not only under pressure when it comes to boys, but also when it comes to the clothes they wear and how that affects whether or not they will fit in with the right crowd in school.  “According to the Girls Inc. Supergirl Dilemma report, 84% of all girls say it’s true that girls are under a lot of pressure to dress the right way.” I’m sure we all remember days in our youth (and maybe in our adulthood) when we wondered if we were wearing the right clothes or wanted to look just like someone we saw on television.  Girls’ confidence can very often hinge on whether or not they feel they look “right” or fit in with the “right” other girls.  Maybe, just maybe, by instilling in young women that the positive women role models in history (and today! Feminism is alive and well!) have been auspicious agents of change – as much as the men that fill the pages of their textbooks – we can show them that what matters most are not the styles of clothing they wear, but the restyling of history made possible by extraordinary women.  And who knows; maybe they’ll even be inspired to take up feminism themselves.

25 thoughts on “Why Feminism Should Be Taught In School

  1. I just read the latest copy of Ms. magazine in which a letter to the editor asked why there wasn’t women’s studies classes in middle and high school. That got me to thinking, “yes, why not?”

    I live in a small town of less than 10,000 where the highest paying jobs for women are teachers or nurses. Most women in this town will never make more than $12-15. They don’t travel, even out of the state much. They don’t really know any people who don’t act, think or look exactly like they do.

    Hunting, fishing and football are the celebrated pasttimes in this part of the state. Women are the afterthought.

    I don’t know. I love to see a women’s studies class at the high school here but they are constantly have budget cuts. The community can’t see past their noses and won’t pass any referendums to support the schools.

    I’d love to teach a women’s studies class for middle/high school but I don’t have a license. I have no idea how I’d pull any of that together.

    How’s that for a long-winded comment?


  2. Great post. I wish they’d had a class like that when I was in high school. Maybe I would have had higher self-esteem. Boys ignored me and I took that as a marker of my self-worth. :0(

  3. I absolutely agree — women’s studies/feminist theory/gender studies should be taught everywhere. This reminds me of a student’s argument paper from last semester, actually: he argued that not only should we have comprehensive sex education but that this education address issues of sexual orientation and gender as well. It would necessarily have to be taught from a feminist perspective (since the non-/anti-feminist perspectives of sexuality and gender are already instilled in us from the moment we’re born), and such a curriculum would be immediately applicable to everyone. The health classroom might be another place we could/should incorporate feminist thought, alongside the social studies, English/language arts, and science classrooms.

    Another issue connected with this that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about is gender-segregated classrooms. In my opinion, gender-segregated classrooms have the potential to allow for feminist pedagogy and discussions about gender in ways that mixed settings might not. One drawback to this approach is that sometimes teachers confuse “gender-segregation” with “gender-based education”: just because you have all boys in a classroom doesn’t mean you have to teach in stereotypically “boy” ways, and vice versa. (Also trans* issues make gender segregation sticky, but what better way to acknowledge the meaning of “gender” as opposed to “biological sex”?)

    Anyway, I’m glad to see you writing about this — I hope it inspires others to think about ways that feminism can and should find its way into the public school sphere.

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  7. (Warning: this may derail into a rant on the public school system… but I’ll try to stay on topic)

    The problem with a women’s studies class in middle/high school is that it would be an elective, not a required course, so the students who needed to hear the information and viewpoints would not be likely to take the class. Especially when core course requirements leave so little time for extracurricular activities and electives. Here in TX, students who want to graduate on the “distinguished” plan need to take 4 years of English, math, social studies, and science; that’s 4 of your 7 classes each year without getting into health, fine arts (say, choir, orchestra, and other groups you want to be in all 4 yrs of high school), PE (including football and other sports, again something most kids want to do all 4 yrs), world languages, speech/communications, programs like PALS, and other stuff I’m forgetting.

    Social studies classes are already overstuffed with curriculum, and English classes are drilling-and-killing standardized test practice and 5-paragraph essays (for the tests), so those teachers are likely to come after you with a large ruler if you ask them to “teach something extra.”

    Now, professional teachers, who know what they’re doing and are committed to their craft, will find ways to incorporate feminist thinkers, events, documents, role models into their curriculum, but if you try to “mandate” a “feminist component” to these classes, then the district will have to write new curriculum and fill out papers and hold meetings and do lots of blah-blah to make everyone hate the idea on principle.

    In my opinionated “expert” opinion, we need to completely overhaul education and the courses we teach. “Health” class serves no purpose anymore, we need a human sexuality class (with comprehensive sex ed and honest, candid discussions), and we need a nutrition and exercise course. We need to separate “English” into reading/literature and writing/grammar and mechanics. And we need to completely change the way we try to cram “history” (read: boring, unending list of dates) down students’ throats. (Yes, I have a few ideas for how to go about doing this, but I won’t bore you with them at the moment…)

    Yes, we need to teach feminism in schools. But we also need to make it something natural, just part of the regular day, instead of “Today, kids, we will be learning about feminism, because it’s National Women’s History Month” and then forget about it the rest of the year. (BTW, same goes for all minority groups who have a “month” named after them.)

    It’ll be a challenge, but I know we’re up for it!

  8. It’s interesting that I went to a women’s college and we were not required to take ANY women’s studies/women’s issues classes. I think it should be part of a core curriculum. I did take an African-American History class and the history majors asked why I was there. Why? I shouldn’t even have had to answer that. By being at a women’s college I would have thought that I would get a broad-based education but there were still classes devoted solely to Women Writers (I was an English and Political Science major). In general I think my teachers in high school did a fair job with my studies and college was very good (there was variety and mention about women) but I still found I had to do my own research and projects on women’s issues.

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  12. Your site is very nice. I’m really impressed and expecting the best for your next article. Hopefully we’ll get it soon. Really appreciate this post in particular. It’s hard to separate the very good from the bad sometimes, but I think you’ve pushed the right key! Is it possible to write a guest posts? I would like to write a few of my articles here.

  13. Ashley on

    Not long-winded at all! Thanks for your input!

    I agree that women’s studies should be taught in school and it would be a great thing to see, but budgets are an issue right now, along with finding people with the right certification to teach these courses. How about including feminism into history and English classes? I hope my posts will give teachers ideas on how to do this. Sometimes all it takes is one inspirational teacher! (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself!)

  14. Ashley on

    I’m sorry to hear that. :( Boys’ attention does not equal self-esteem! I wish more young women knew that.

  15. Ashley on

    Interestingly, last school year I had classes that were made up of almost completely male students (only 3-4 girls per class) and I did find myself teaching in a different way to reach a different audience. I do agree that this was effective, and would like to try teaching a predominantly female audience at some time to note the differences. This year, though, I have a good mix.

    You say: “just because you have all boys in a classroom doesn’t mean you have to teach in stereotypically “boy” ways, and vice versa,” and I think you’re right, but I truly believe a good teacher will do what it takes to reach his or her audience. If that means teaching to boys or girls, you do it. I think the more difficult process comes when there is a mix; how do you empower the girls without ignoring the boys, and how do you reach boys without making girls feel inferior?

  16. I truly believe a good teacher will do what it takes to reach his or her audience. If that means teaching to boys or girls, you do it.

    Definitely! But there’s a big trend of doing gender-based education in sex-segregated classrooms where teachers assume that because they have all girls in the classroom that they should only read/talk about “girly” “feminine” things. I think it’s important — and empowering for girls especially — for teachers to consider their students people first. Basically what I’m saying is a teacher certainly should do what it takes to reach her learner audience — regardless of the gender(s) of her audience. Some boys will like collaborative (coded feminine) activities, and some girls will thrive on independent (coded masculine) activities, and part of feminist pedagogy is being okay with that as a teacher.

  17. Ashley on

    Yes. I agree. Generally, when teaching a classroom full of girls, there is an assumption that they won’t enjoy masculine things like, for example, Catcher in the Rye. This happens to be my favorite book, so I ignore assumptions like that and teach what we’re passionate about.

    However, there are methods to teaching girls that will not work for boys and vise versa. My classes of boys wouldn’t respond to my niceness and gentleness, but would totally respond to my sarcasm and bad jokes. Of course, I’m talking about the class as a whole, not each individual student, but that’s a whole other can of worms…

    I feel another post coming on.

  18. Ashley on

    You make some great points here, but honestly, I cringe a little bit while I’m reading this for a few reasons. First of all, as a teacher, I have enormous faith in the public school system. I also have faith in my ability to do my job well, and I would never complain about adding something to the curriculum. I may be an anomaly, but I think some of this depends on your school’s atmosphere, and I think it is sort of unfair to make assumptions like this about the entire public school system as a whole. I am very fortunate to work in a district where the curriculum is fluid and constantly updated to meet the needs of students. Do we teach knowing there’s a test at the end of it? Of course. Who doesn’t? But we also keep in mind what will benefit our student population in the long run. I absolutely do not “drill and kill” for the test and if I did I’d probably lose my job.

    Maybe I’m just extremely fortunate, but I hope not. I hope this sort of open-minded educational reform is happening in more places than just my school.

    I do agree with all of your overhaul ideas, though, in regards to history and English curriculum. :)

  19. Ashley on

    Wow… even in a women’s college you were not required to take women’s studies classes? That would be like not taking religion at a Catholic university… I’m sure it happens, but it’s surprising to me.

  20. You’re right, I do have a pretty negative view of things. I just left the classroom after working in a department where the two teachers with whom I was supposed to work closely were your textbook burned-out, waiting-til-I-can-retire teacher. our dictrict gave us all the tools we could possibly hope for to incorporate more technology in the classroom (every student was given a laptop, on the school’s dime; training was offered weekly for programs/apps that we could seamlessly incorporate in our lessons), and these teachers spent all their time complaining about the “unreasonable” demands the district was making, and poring through their contracts to make sure they didn’t “have to” comply with these directives from admin.

    I think it depends on the school, and of course the teacher. There are tons of teachers that happily embrace new ideas.

    While I may be bitter about my own (recent) experiences, I need to stay positive, and remember all those other teachers I worked with who love their jobs and go above and beyond for their kids.

  21. If you can’t get more feminism into the curriculum – which I find alarming after being out of high school for 17 years!) I suggest encouraging students to set up a womens’ history after school club. When I was a teen in Houston, we had Amnesty International, a movie club, religious and music clubs, and everything else under the sun. It seems like – if there’s other stuff going on after school – a club dedicated to studying women would be possible as well. Also, if it can’t be done at school, Students could also host it at home.

    Good luck out there, everyone!

  22. I love this idea! What better way to empower young women than to involve them in the process of creating and leading the club?

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