Why Feminists Need to Take Over School Boards

Actress 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


Soraya Chemaly writes about the role of gender in culture, politics, religion and media. She has appeared as a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Sirius XM progressive radio, and is a frequent HuffPost Live Panelist.