Guest Post by Laura Sundstrom: On Not Silencing

Teaching feminism in schools is one of the most important feminist issues of our time. In order to empower young women, we need to teach them about women’s accomplishments through history, and we need to explore teaching methods that inspire girls to speak out and make a difference.

Today’s guest post in the Teaching Feminism series is from Laura Sundstrom. You can find her blog at and you can follow her on Twitter at

One thing that I have been thinking a lot about lately is silencing. So when Ashley asked me to write a guest post for her teaching feminism in schools series, I thought I would write about the effect silencing has in a school setting.

Just one thing to remember: this is coming from the perspective of a student, not a teacher.

Feminism and women’s studies were not taught in my high school. We’d have a unit on women’s history, a unit on books written by women, etc. But those were usually some of the shortest units of the class and nothing was incorporated into the rest of the class. It just seemed like something the teachers wanted to get through because they had to, not something they were actually interested in.

The high school that I went to was overwhelmingly white, upper middle class, conservative, and Christian. I fit the mold in kind of two of these demographics. I’m white and middle class — but by the standards of my fellow classmates, I was on the lower middle class end of the spectrum, though not by society’s standards. I am not, however, conservative or that religious.

When I was in high school I definitely had feminist values, because that was the way that I was raised, but I don’t remember ever calling myself a feminist during that time. I think a lot of this had to do with my high school atmosphere and the people that I associated with. While teachers claimed that the classroom was a “safe environment,” it wasn’t really true. Having an opinion that was different (and sometimes radically different) than most of the other people in the class was not an easy thing and the teachers didn’t really do a whole lot to encourage any type of discussion about it.

I really shouldn’t blame the teachers entirely. In high school, I wasn’t really the kind of person that raised their hand a lot. It wasn’t cool to be smart and it definitely wasn’t cool to have differing opinions. I didn’t really fit in anyway, but I was too shy to actually say anything in class. But I often wonder if my voice was encouraged to be heard more often, if I would have been more willing to share it. But there’s really no way of knowing.

Teaching feminism and women’s studies in high school comes with a lot of responsibility. I think it is a great idea and necessary to the development of well-rounded students that feminism and women’s studies be taught in middle school and high school. But where the responsibility comes in is making sure that you are discussing these topics in a truly safe environment for the students. It shouldn’t be about “preaching” your values as a teacher but about fostering discussion about these important issues.

Students who voice differing opinions are often silenced in a classroom setting, not only by fellow students out of peer pressure, but also sometimes from teachers. While teaching feminism and women’s studies, it is also important to teach about respect and practice respect yourself. It’s important to encourage all opinions, even anti-feminist ones if they are made in a respectful manner. Silencing opinions of students, whether you agree with them or not, is not what is going to build confident students who are ready for the “real world.” High schoolers can be cruel, but when the silencing comes from teachers, I think it might be even more damaging.

The incorporation of feminism and women’s studies into the curriculum has to be done in a way that avoids silencing. I don’t really have any concrete ways to go about doing this because I am not familiar with teaching techniques. All I can say is try to be respectful and encourage respect in your students. Teaching feminism and women’s studies should be about fostering discussion and bringing awareness to feminist issues, not only in the lives of students but in society as well. Silencing students who are respectful in their opinions is not the way to go about doing this.

Enjoy this series? Have something to add? Want to write a guest post? Leave your voice in the comments or e-mail me at smallstroke (at) gmail (dot) com.

6 thoughts on “Guest Post by Laura Sundstrom: On Not Silencing

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  2. As a teacher, I cringed a little reading this — because you’re right, and because there were times when I was that teacher that “jumped” on a student because his or her opinion differed from mine.

    I tried not to, and I tried to phrase things more as “I’m playing devil’s advocate” than “I’m telling you how it is,” but I am a very opinionated and pig-headed person, so in issues where I have made up my mind (women’s right, equality, gay rights), I tend not to budge.

    Maybe if we had more team-teaching, where you had more than one teacher in the room, we could encourage more open discussion. Teacher are humans, after all, and we’re not perfect… it’s hard for me to be open to ideas that I find utterly wrong, and I know in those situations, I don’t come across as open to other ideas. If there were two teachers in the room, their differing ideas might encourage students to share their own ideas; they would see there can be more than one opinion on a topic.

    Sadly, too often teachers have to be RIGHT and are afraid of ever admitting they do not know something (usually relating to their subject; they think in order to keep their “authority” status they need to be completely infallible), but this attitude translates into “there is ONE right answer and the teacher has it — at least in this classroom,” which means the students do not feel comfortable offering their own opinions. That, or this push to standardize test everything to death leads to “there is only one answer/only one way of looking at things, because you can only choose one of the A/B/C/D bubbles on your answer document” and this (lack of) thought process leads to the slow, fatal erosion of critical thinking and independent thought…

  3. Criss – I like your idea for team teaching, that might really help in fostering discussion. Or I could possibly see how it might intimidate students…but hopefully it would just help foster discussion.

    I think there is a way to disagree with a students’ opinion and express your own while not silencing a student. As in “playing devil’s advocate,” I think this could be a good way to bring in differing opinions or your own opinion without it being too overbearing. I feel as if when teachers express their own opinions and make it know that it is their opinion, students might be afraid to disagree. So when discussion feminism, etc. it might be helpful to have the students start the discussion or have students lead the discussion and have the teacher jump in as “devil’s advocate” or to point out some important issues, etc. Thanks for your comments!

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