Click! Teaching Feminism to Boys

There is nothing in the world more infuriating and yet more life-affirming than attempting to teach a room full of 15- and 16-year-old boys why feminism matters. Yet, as an 11th grader in high school, this is what I’d set out to do.

My sophomore-year history teacher had given me the opportunity to teach two of his advanced-placement U.S. history courses on women’s history and feminism, an area that, through independent reading, research and writing, had earned me what my teacher called “expert status.” I was flattered and looked forward to a challenge. I got one.

“It’s just that I think women are different,” Andrew Myers says. “Why do we always need to talk about how women can be like men? I mean, they’re not men so why should we ignore the fact that they’re a certain way naturally?”

Andrew is a sophomore who compensates for his small build by walking with a swagger that even on John Wayne would be over the top. Yes, I tell him, women are different from men. Which, of course, must mean that they are “naturally” suited to the home and hearth. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of natural inclination, perhaps we can also agree that Native Americans are naturally inclined to be noble savages who are only able to realize their potential for civilization through the influence of white people. Oh, and black people are just naturally more physically powerful than white people, so why should we ignore their inherent potential for manual labor like cotton picking?

Andrew turns pink and juts out his chin while other members of the class giggle. All jokes aside, I tell them, Andrew makes a good point. Why do we talk about feminism? What’s the point? Why all the fuss? What, at the end of the day, were women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi hoping to achieve? These questions are my way of testing not only if they’ve read the course packet I’d put together but whether they’ve actually given any thought to what they’ve read.

Michael Zimmerman raises his hand and hesitantly says, “I don’t think that it [feminism] was about being like men, I think that it was about, you know, equality.” I ask him to point to a specific place in the reading that supports his argument. He comes up with a quote from the bottom of an article written by Kathleen Neal Cleaver entitled “Women, Power, and Revolution.” Though it is not the text I would have immediately picked, the quote he gives the class is a good one:

During that era, we hadn’t developed much language to talk about the elimination of gender discrimination. What we sought to eliminate were the legal, social, psychological, economic and political limitations still being imposed on our human rights, and on our rights as citizens.

I nod and ask the class to note the use of the word “language.” Gender, I tell the class, is a form of categorization and classification which, like any other means of labeling, depends on the taxonomist. If defining or pointing out instances of inequity can seem to be an ever-shifting mark, it is because the rhetoric is often designed to suit the needs of the rhetorician. The feminist movement is about women finally taking control of the words–changing the language which imprisons us and anyone else who has been relegated to “minority” status throughout history. This is what I tell my class, and I feel a little surge of pride when I see them lean over their notebooks and scribble furiously. Out of the corner of my eye I catch Andrew give me a look, not of contempt or annoyance but, dare I say, of respect.

This post is a part of a week-long blog carnival in honor of Feminist Coming Out Day

Photo of high school boys in Israel from Flickr user hoyasmeg, under license from Creative Commons 2.0


  1. Joi Morris says:

    As the mother of a 15 year-old son, I totally respect what you have done here.

    Job well done!

  2. Alexandra Ferrara says:

    This makes me so proud and reminds me of myself when I was her age. All the power to you in the world, Erin!!

  3. Great article! Put those boys in their place. They need to learn from an early age that males are basically committing a crime against humanity simply be existing. If we teach young girls from an early age that they are strong, beautiful, and capable, while ignoring young boys, hopefully in 20 years women will be stronger than ever. #feminism

    • @Zyzz – "males are basically committing a crime against humanity simply by existing"? Are you serious? It's that kind of talk that gives the "F-word" a bad rap. Feminism isn't about making women better than men; it's about reaching *equality* between the sexes, so men aren't better than men & vice versa. I want young girls to grow up strong & capable, *and* have healthy, strong relationships with men in their lives – not ignore them. What you said was extremely sexist, and it's exactly the same thing that patriarchal culture does, simply on the flip side. It's no better.

      • @Kenia I think Zyzz was being ironic and implying that feminists believe boys commit crimes “simply by existing.”

        Either way, Zyzz is completely misinformed.

      • I do agree with what you are saying, but also recognize that you are playing into the patriarchal culture that you are speaking of: "it's about reaching *equality* between the sexes, so men aren't better than men & vice versa. I want young girls to grow up strong & capable, *and* have healthy, strong relationships with men in their lives" Feminism is not simply equlaity for the sexes…this leaves out queer and trans identified people, racism, abilism, etc. And saying that you want the GIRLS to grow up…. assuming that men cannot be feminists. I completely agree that Zyzz is reinforcing the thought of feminism being all about man-bashing though!

  4. Sexism hurts everyone, including men who are culturally conditioned against sharing emotions in healthy ways. Am I right, Zyzz?

  5. Christina says:

    Great post! I think it's awesome that you taught feminism to a bunch of high schoolers while you were still in high school and so well at that. More power to you and all of the feminists out there! 🙂

  6. g8 post!

  7. Michael Steane says:

    I hope you are also going to teach about discrimination against men. The fact that men have had to do national service and are still required to register for the draft in America, something that feminists rarely mention when complaining that it was a full ten years between male suffrage and female suffrage in Britain.
    Your language of victimisation is as insulting to females as it is abusive to males. Using a classroom for political purposes like this is an abuse of privilege.

  8. Proud Independant Black Womyn says:

    Damn straight! Go into that public school and preach to those dumb machismo-laden males, who didnt ask for it, a lesson!

  9. Excellent post. *However* – the part when you responded to the boys inane comment about “why should we care?” was something of a red herring. There are clear biological differences between men and women (of course). Appealing to something like race is a red herring in that the contrast isn’t quite so stark and easy to see. Cultural inclinations and biological inclinations are very separate categories that you seem to have equivocated in your response. Effective, I’m sure, in context (and good thinking on your feet, regardless) – but ultimately not a very good response.

    Why talk about women? Because otherwise we’d only talk about men… last I checked there were AT LEAST as many women as men. Why talk about “how women can be like men”? Because our societies are practically built around the principle that men are superior to women in every important aspect, and these notions have no biological evidence to support them.

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