Why Feminists Need to Take Over School Boards

6252764502_96c4cefc15_zActress Shailene Woodley is this week’s “She’s not a feminist!” It Girl.  When asked her opinion about feminism, Woodley expressed her belief that it’s a bad thing and requires hating men.

There are no sparkly Feminist Fairies running around sprinkling Feminist Fairy Dust on girls and boys. No Feminist Mindmelders transferring feminist history by osmosis. Feminists don’t spontaneously happen. With some fairly minor exceptions, people who understand feminism and identify as feminists generally get there by dint of personal need, curiosity, experience and hard work—all of which are explicitly counter-cultural.  If they are lucky, they have parents and teachers who teach them. But, that’s catch as catch can.

When bell hooks wrote Feminism Is For Everybodysomething that should be required reading in primary schools but isn’t—she explained, “By failing to create a mass-based educational movement to teach everyone about feminism we allow mainstream patriarchal mass media to remain the primary place where folks learn about feminism, and most of what they learn is negative.”

The overwhelming impression we give children as they grow up in the United States—that there is a kind of equitable balance between men and women in the public sphere—is so outrageously laughable that the only way to describe what we teach them is as propaganda. By any metric you care to consider—political, religious, corporate, and practically all forms of media and cultural production—we are nowhere near parity. Girls and women are the vast bulk of humans being sold and traded as sex and forced labor products on a global open market. Most depictions of girls and women continue to create an environment of denigration that make the expression “powerful woman” an oxymoron. We can’t even visualize the concept appropriately. And, while a recent spate of books, movies and music videos featuring strong, female role models (like those played so well by Woodley) is a significant positive development they are, functionally, drops in a bucket.  As for depictions of feminists, well, we produce such a steady stream of straw feminists you could hold a yearlong bonfire and have some left over.

It’s au courant to be perturbed, as far as children are concerned, with the effects of entertainment media as a “fourth parent” with undesirable influence. However, schools are the most immersive media environment that children live with. And our schools, androcentric by default, are disasters when it comes to growing children with equal senses of competence and authority. Girls may have higher academic achievement, but that has yet to alter the fact of male dominance. The number one job for women today is what is was 60 years ago, when women earned less than 10 percent of college degrees: secretary. Schools are, despite efforts of the occasional individual teacher, vectors for male overconfidence and female under-confidence, and petri dishes of implicit biases and stereotypes that undermine equality of all kinds. And yet, the overwhelming concern for many people is making sure women don’t “take power” from men and take over. It’s surreal every time I hear it.

I speak regularly on these topics, often at elite institutions.  Every time I have the opportunity, I ask one or more of these very basic questions: Do you know what A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is? Do you know who the Grimke Sisters were? Were you taught the Declaration of Sentiments, a point-by-point rewriting of the Declaration of Independence, in school? Have you ever read Frederick Douglass on women’s subjugation?  Did you know that women went on hunger strikes, were imprisoned, force-fed and faced death fighting to get the vote? Were you taught that during the 1963 March on Washington, women civil rights leaders paraded separately from the men? Can you name the ways that Native American women’s fights against colonialism affect life today?

In one instance, in a room of more than 100 students, I asked how many had learned about the civil rights movement. One hundred percent. Since we were going to talk about rape on campus, I asked how many had heard and laughed at rape jokes: more than 90 percent. I asked how many had learned about fights for women’s liberation in the United States. Maybe six hands, and two were teachers. I was compelled to point out at the end of the quiz that Sojourner Truth was not the name of an indie band.

Usually, no more than 10 percent of the room, frequently far less, can answer “yes” to one or more of these questions, despite the fact that these people, events, actions and words filled the newspapers, books and manifestos of their day.

To paraphrase educator Myra Pollack Sadker: Each time a child opens a book and reads a womanless history, he or she learns that girls and women are worth less. It’s an ethical and moral failure that we suppress these histories and don’t teach feminism in our schools. It’s also an economic drag and politically dangerous.

These erasures undermine the purpose and intent of public education because we fail to prepare children for citizenship, we actively make them culturally illiterate, we undermine racial, sexual and gender equality, we degrade our ability to create an effective workforce and an economy that provides equal opportunity and leverages the talents of all people, and, lastly, we fail to grow adults who can think critically about the world around them. It’s a societal failure because every time we choose to teach a child a distorted past, we create a distorted future.

For a woman like Shailene Woodley, I imagine it is particularly cognitively disjunctive to come to terms with marginalization in the cultural imagination. Woodley is very successfully working in a sexist industry where saying openly that you are a feminist involves serious professional risk, particularly for young women. More are challenging this sexism, as Olivia Wilde did earlier this year, but many, many more are not. And why would they? Women in Hollywood who speak openly are mainly older for a reason. You see the same pattern in the music industry. Beyonce is doing now what was not probably an option for her 10 years ago, career wise. Only the position of Queen of the Universe has given her license to speak her mind clearly and forcefully.

Shailene Woodley may take it upon herself to read up on feminism and reconsider her position one day, but in the meantime, it would be more productive if people would stop being surprised by the predictable and start taking over school boards.

Photo of Shailene Woodley courtesy of Flickr user Nick Step licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. alison says:

    I can see what your getting at, but I respectfully disagree with some of your examples. I can guarantee that people at my school (an average public high school) are definitely made widely aware of the struggles that feminists have faced, and I didn’t find our classes to be androcentric at all. If anything, we learn to glorify achievments by women, as if it’s something special for a woman to be able to accomplish the same thing that a man can, which is very possible in today’s society. I’m just curious, did you also ask the class you surveyed who Sojourner Truth’s male counterpart, Frederick Douglass, was? I think it would’ve been a lot more helpful to your argument to provide his example as a control.

    • Rachel says:

      If you were taught to “glorify achievements by women, as if it is something special for a women to be able to accomplish the same thing that a man can” then you were being taught in an androcentric environment. It should be assumed that of course women are capable of the same accomplishments as men, not to patronizing praise a women’s achievements.

      • Charles says:

        Rachel – you hit the nail on the head with your comment. I totally agree. A glorified achievement is an achievement by the human race and not gender specific.

  2. Kelly Moore says:

    I am a woman in my 50s, Phi Beta Kappa graduate of a major university, who spent 20 years working as a litigator and who published three books. I don’t know what A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is, have only heard of the Grimke Sisters in the last year, am not familiar with the Declaration of Sentiments, did not know that women went on hunger strikes, were imprisoned, force-fed and faced death fighting to get the vote. I have no idea how Native American women’s fights against colonialism affect life today. I do, however, know who Frederick Douglass is. After 30 years of feeling perfectly liberated, I have only just become a feminist. Sorry it took me so long.

    • Kelly Moore says:

      ^^ I must add, “feeling perfectly liberated but being utterly mistaken about that”

    • I think the point is that without an understanding of the histories of women fighting for better condions, succeeding generations of women will have a difficult time understanding why they should bother with the term “feminist.” The names and documents were not exactly basic, but they are just examples. Obviously you missed out on these particular examples but you know what it means to be a feminist despite these gaps in knowledge? You gained an understanding of how women struggled for centuries through osmosis or maybe it was just in your bones. Others are not so fortunate.

    • pocketnovella says:

      She’s not arguing that we’re not feminists if we can’t check those off our lists. She is saying that the educational system has failed to include our rich history (note I held back from writing “herstory” haha). The fact that you have accomplished so much and have experienced so many years of education only proves her point.

  3. Jennifer says:

    I’m fairly young at 29 and don’t remember learning about feminist struggles in my years at Californian schools. Heck, we skimmed over women getting the vote in high school history classes. I can’t answer most of the questions you asked. I’m a handful of classes away from a bachelors degree in liberal studies and am ashamed that I don’t know more. I do know that I’ve always identified as being feminist, even if a bit “undereducated.” Maybe because I have seen the inequalities and experienced them for myself; or because it just made sense to me that we should all be equal.

  4. Nicole Aleman says:

    I completely agree! People need to be educated on feminism and its roots. It all starts with the board of education. In my opinion it should be its own mandatory class because in regular us history i never heard about any womens movement. Teachers decide what content to show and talk about and clearly womens suffrage wasnt one of them. It wasnt until this semester at Moorpark College that i took a class “The History of American Women” that i learned everything. My professor was a phenomenal teacher and she didnt just teach, she liberated all of us and spoke with passion to make a change in society. Most of all, she showed us to not be scared to live our lives; because the way we live now was only made possible through the social, economic, and emotional hardships of women. We even watched documentaries including the “Makers: Women Who Made History” and “Miss Representation.” I feel that everyone should be more knowledgable on the womens movement because how else are people supposed to take us seriously as a whole? This is a problem still existing not only in America today, but all over the world.

  5. Abigail Sawyer says:

    I have read A Vinidication… The Grimke Sisters sound vaguely familiar. I had never heard of a Declaration of Sentiments. I’m familiar with Frederick Douglass but didn’t really realize he wrote about the struggles of women. I had no idea that civil rights marchers were gender segregated. I grew up near the Navajo nation and have done appreciation for contemporary colonialism and the efforts of Native American women to speak up, but I couldn’t converse about it with any real awareness. I’ve read bell hooks, but not thst book. Thank you. I’ve learned a lot and am headed off to learn more (and consider running for the school board).

  6. Celeste Schueler says:

    I attended what I considered a very conservative school in Mississippi and I don’t remember learning much at all about women in history. I had to branch out on my own especially in my American government class. However, we did learn about Sojourner Truth (one of my heroines), but nothing of the incredible struggles women faced when gaining the right to vote. I was frowned upon and made fun of for writing feminist articles on abortion and sexist rap lyrics for the high school newspaper. I was introduced to the Handmaid’s Tale simply by finding it at a local thrift shop. Majority of girls have to go out and find feminism for themselves when we need it more than ever. It wasn’t until college that I could join a NOW chapter, perform in the Vagina Monologues, and raise awareness of campus rape. I also had a blast working with the Feminist Majority Foundation to stop Prop 26 in Mississippi. All students should learn about women in history, women authors, and the struggles women had to endure to get where we are today (even though we have so far to come). Now that there are articles about how to help boys close the gender gap, people are blaming the girls in schools. Are we going back to the 50s? Until everyone can realize and appreciate what feminism has done for all women and continues to do, we will never gain the equality women so rightfully deserve.

  7. Your feminist education litmus tes is spot on. I would have failed it miserably if not for the “Women’s studies” class I took while obtaining my doctoral degree. My children won’t have to wait that long to learn those things because feminists paved the way for their mother to be educated, an equal in her own home, and to use her voice to teach the next generation that feminism is a wonderful word.

  8. Personally, I have to wonder why some of these young women like Ms. Woodley, who have been fortunate enough to gain “celebrity” status, aren’t challenged more by interviewers when they say such absurd things about feminism. In response to her rather silly belief that feminism “requires hating men,” I probably would have been strongly tempted to ask her, “what idiot told you that?!” Alas, I wasn’t the interviewer. :)

    In any case, I think it would be a very good thing for girls and young women to be exposed to feminism starting in elementary school and continuing through high school. In my research for a writing project, I saw that there were biographies of women like Rosa Parks and some other women written for the elementary school reader, but so far, I haven’t seen any such books about Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Lucy Stone, to name just three of the leading feminists of the 19th century, or books on the outstanding feminists of the 20th century like Gloria Steinem either.

    Maybe, when more girls are introduced to feminists and feminism in elementary school, and continue learning about feminism and its great leaders through middle and high school as well, we will finally begin to hear less absurd comments from young women who take the rights they have now for granted.

    • Actuallyresearchesfacts says:

      It’s pretty easy. Feminists have fought very hard for men to lose presumption of innocence and even brand all men as rapists/abusers etc. not to mention the Tender Years doctrine to take men’s children away from them and alimony to force a man to support his ex wife should she decide to cheat on him and leave him

  9. James Hendry says:

    I went to public school in the 80′s and 90′s, I don’t know where you went but we learned about injustice.

  10. Elizabeth Kerr says:

    While I was considering colleges and my future in 1969, my Bryn Mawr-educated mother stated that her ambition for me was to become “an educated asset” to a professional man. I’ve spent my life doing everything but that. Living in Virginia, I’m acutely aware of the erosion of everything we feminists have achieved. We are a hare’s breath from becoming a western version of an Islamic state. With the bans on abortion and the introduction of legislation against hormonal regulation drugs (“the Pill” or the “Morning – after Pill”), the groundwork has been laid. It will be a fait accomplit before Ms Woodley can say “minimum wage”.

  11. I am in full agreement with this article and it was a brilliant read that I have learnt a lot from (despite already having called myself a feminist for several years) so thanks for that. I have recently started my own blog to document my ideas surrounding sexism and misogyny that I come across in life and it seems to be going okay so far. I am also a qualified teacher of English (in the UK) who hopes to do her masters and PHD in Literature with a feminist stand-point within that. I want to one day be involved in the changes that need to happen for equality and was wondering if gaining my PHD and writing is a good way to do that? I would also like to be involved in educating young people in feminism for the future but am not sure quite how to go about that. Am I on the right track or is there more I could be doing? I am also due to have my first child in less than 4 weeks so I might be pre-occupied for a little while but know that it will always be on my mind and in my ambitions.

    Any thoughts welcome, thanks, Danielle

    Danielle

  12. Casey Brazell says:

    I am 41 years old, and have know about the struggles women went through to get the vote for over 20 years. I started researching women’s history when I was around 19-21. Read Gloria Steinem’s books, and others. Please watch the documentary “If Not For Ourselves Alone” about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony. As women I do not understand how woman don’t know their own history.

  13. athas17 says:

    What we need to do is find Ms. Woodley’s FB or Twitter page and begin educating her from Lesson 1.

  14. Maybe it’s time we give up on the word feminist. “I support gender equality” is a much clearer statement than “I’m a feminist”, with all of its (misunderstood) man-hating connotations. Language is an evolving, living thing and if we gave up trying to control the word, it would free us up to make progress on the actual issues of gender equality.

    • Jenny, I strongly disagree with you on giving up the word, feminist. In a male-dominated society, the word, feminism, challenges the notion that the male is the gold standard of humanity. “I support gender equality” does not challenge male-centrism and it begs the question, “Equality on whose terms? The patriarchal male’s terms?”

      It would be such a sell out to give up the word, feminism. Instead, we need to build feminist education organizations that use the media in creative ways.

  15. Jerry Scott says:

    Great article and comments. I totally agree with the notion that we need more ‘herstory’ in history curriculums at all levels. Taking over school boards is a great starting point to making this and so many other important changes happen. But there’s another more fundamental thing all people, but especially all women, need to do that hasn’t been mentioned here: educate yourselves on the issues that affect you and then vote your interests–in every election–even the midterms and all local contests. Women are totally underrepresented in American politics, and until that changes is it any surprise that women’s issues , managed largely by rich white men, are being badly misrepresented, and by one party with the least female representation (Republicans), women’s issues are virtually under attack on issues from choice, to healthcare, to wage equity. A century ago women put themselves on the line for the right to vote, yet almost 50% of Americans Do Not vote in presidential elections, and almost 60% Don’t vote in mid-term elections (and it’s a mid-term year!). Women vote at slightly higher levels than men, but imagine how different today’s political dialog might be if 75% or more of eligible women voters actually voted their interests? How much more equal things might be? So go learn about women of history, it’s important that we all do this. But if you wanted a very simple summary of what their effort and sacrifice can teach us, it’s this: If you want things to be different you have to define it, and then fight for it on every level. If you want more power, you have to take it. If you want respect you have to demand it. I have 2 daughters, one of whom turned me on to this discussion—but I was a feminist long before I had them. So let’s also remember, we’re all in this together, and you need to teach the little boys and the men in your lives these things also, with kindness and understanding, because we need to get the message more than ever. Find your voicees.

    • Mr. Derp says:

      Your version of kindness and understanding sounds more like oppression. Why is it that everyone except white heterosexual men are allowed “to be who they are”. No you have to “train”/brainwash them. Disgusting.

  16. What is really fascinating to me is that a connection between these erasure and, the confidence gap and the boy crisis in education is not being considered or discussed. Girls leave schools with less confidence than they go in with and boys leave overconfident. Actually seeing yourself in others as valued in society is important and as girls grow up they move from domestic spaces filled with women to public spaces where women are isolated and rare by comparison. This is such a no brainer.

  17. I think maybe Ms. Woodley either FORGOT or SLEPT THROUGH her history classes. There have been times/strata in USA history where if you weren’t a white hetero Protestant male, you were INVISIBLE. (Heck, there were people that had a fit when an IRISH CATHOLIC was elected President [JFK, dig?]…and I know an older gent that told me he saw “No Irish Allowed” signs when he was a young feller.)

  18. Thanks for posting this splendid article, Soraya. It would be great for feminists to get on school boards. But really, we need to build feminist education and anti-defamation groups. In some ways, they would be similar to Jewish anti-defamation groups. We would continuously challenge stereotypes, show the world real feminists at work, at play, doing activism, spending time with their families, we would have good movies and TV shows about the women’s suffrage movement and the feminist activists of the 1960′s and 70′s and so on.

  19. The “Not For Ourselves Alone” PBS documentary is excellent, and there’s also a “Not For Ourselves Alone” book that goes with it. I was lucky to get both the book and DVD from the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester, New York. I also have the DVD “Makers,” which I ordered through PBS, and Gail Collins’ outstanding book “When Everything Changed; The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 To the Present.”

    Thank goodness for my local used book stores; I have bought so many great books on feminism and feminists from these outlets, and of course my local library has been very helpful too. For me, each of these books is a prized treasure, and they are stashed wherever I can find space. It would take too long to list all the books I have read here, but I can say they are available if one looks hard enough. Just keep looking. :)

  20. Fred Nadelman, LMSW says:

    Stereotypes are a form of cultural slavery. School board members must be elected who will abolish them. All types of education should include equal opportunity for woman as well.

  21. I would also get rid of the word “feminism,” if you want more women to join the bandwagon. I support equality, but I don’t support what I have experienced in terms of women bashing men, women thinking they have the right to do whatever they want to make themselves happy no matter who it hurts (neither men nor women should feel this way–we ALL should make our choices wisely, and should make sacrifices where appropriate), and the modern media portrayal of men as bumbling idiots while their wives are the patronizing know-it-alls. I think many of us women have gained this impression of feminism and it would be great if we could just support each other no matter our gender and strive to always do the right thing (especially for our kids and spouse–because we *chose* them) no matter our gender.

  22. blitzcrank says:

    As a counterpoint to your statement about rape jokes, have you personally ever laughed at a joke about cancer? A joke about or involving murder? Or any joke that could be perceived to offend someone, somewhere, at some point in time?

    If so you should check your fucking privilege and stop getting offended all of the fucking time. The world becomes a much happier place when you aren’t constantly searching for the next thing to get your panties in a twist about. :^)

  23. I strongly oppose spreading the gender war to schools, It is my hope that the current generation of mens rights activists and feminists will die of so we can leave in a world without the current animousity. Teaching kids that the other sex are voilent, oppresive (patriachy) or manipulative, deceptive etc (as thought by mrm) is not the right way to go. And as far as gender disparity in education the scale tilts in favour of girls, so putting sexist feminists on boards will only increase the disparity which we are all trying to solve.

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