Wading Into Roe: The Feminist Politics of an Apolitical Classroom

We have been told to remain apolitical in our classrooms in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Loudoun County, Virginia. We were told to remain apolitical when students wanted to walk out in protest of the Muslim ban. We were told to remain apolitical when our students wanted to walk out after the Parkland shooting. We were just told to remain apolitical in an all-staff meeting at the beginning of this year—even though, at every turn, democracy, justice and equality seem to be on the chopping block.

We are supposed to teach students lessons that will prepare them for the real world. How can we do that if we are afraid to wade into the murky waters of political discourse?

Recently, I, along with two other teachers, I recently had the opportunity to take eight phenomenal young women to Durban, South Africa with two other teachers to attend a leadership summit entitled Girl Talk—which featured remarkable women like the first black female airline pilot in South Africa to the titular founder of The Jes Foord Foundation. There was a common thread there in Durban that connected a neurosurgeon, a lawyer, a D.J., one that ran through all the presentations: We have to talk, and we have to listen.

The women all spoke about the obstacles and prejudices they faced and continue to face as they navigate life; about their doubts, their fears, their tragedies and their failures. The 149 girl delegates in the audience listened—to their stories about the setbacks, backlash, dark moments and violence they faced. But those girls also saw the outcome: strong willed women, standing on a stage, epitomizing success in the face of adversity. They saw women that faced oppression but demanded progress. They saw what they could be through the open and honest discourse that ranged from the personal to the professional and political.

I listened, too. And I saw what I needed to do. Pursuant of county directives to remain apolitical in my classroom, I waded into the topic of reproductive rights within its walls—because a woman’s choice on what to do with her body isn’t political. It’s just the real world.

Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood are not political topics. What any woman chooses to do with her body is purely apolitical. Women have been denied a seat at the table in U.S. politics, and our bodies have become the meal. Lawmakers have taken our bodies, the one thing that a person should have autonomous control over, and instead made decisions for us, without us. The debate is not left-right, democrat-republican, liberal-conservative. The debate is not political—it is tyrannical. The debate should have never started in the first place.

For me, the most controversial topics of discourse occurring in the nation should not even be fodder for political rhetoric, including my own right to my own body and the rights of women across the world to the same. It’s true that tensions are running high—but the stakes are even higher.

So today in class, we are talking about it. We are going to talk about why men feel constantly entitled to women’s bodies: from censoring Serena’s attire to groping Ariana Grande on stage, from rampant rape culture that denigrates women to mere objects to the laws and regulations telling us what to do with our bodies after they are done with them.

No more. People have tried to tell us what to do and not do for far too long. They are not going to tell me what I can and cannot talk about in a room full of women who want to learn—who need to learn. This is the most apolitical discussion I could possibly think to have in a Women’s Studies Class. They may have cut away at my autonomous right to my body, but they will not take my freedom of speech. The more we talk, the louder we are. The louder we are, the more people will be forced to listen.

This is not just about abortion. It is about access to education, access to free and affordable birth control, access to planned parenthood, access to paid family leave, access to choice. This is about access to the conversation. And if someone has a problem with it, they can check their privilege before they check my lesson plan.


Jessica Berg is a high school English teacher in Loudoun County, Virginia, where she lives with her husband, Dave, two daughters, Harper and Bailey, and her dog, Finley. In 2016, she started the Ms. Phoenix Organization (an homage to Ms.) at her high school to empower and educate young women and men. She truly believes education is the first step in the fight for equality. Everything she does, she does for her daughters.