‘Sharing Our Stories Loosens the Grip they Have on Us’: Watching Students Claim Voice to Power

Students’ misogyny-induced pain and trauma shouldn’t only be acknowledged and validated in a gender studies classroom.

(Anastassiya Bezhekeneva / Getty Images)

Teaching gender, women and sexuality studies (GWSS) is a special kind of exhausting. The emotional labor that comes with it is not learnable in graduate school. It is not uncommon for a student to disclose a trauma to you that they have never told anyone else. 

I have been a professor for almost 25 years and can’t imagine any other job. One of the most gratifying parts is being there for my students, but by June of every year, I’m tired. Especially after teaching The Power of Feminist Writing.

I taught Power of Feminist Writing in spring 2022 for the first time. I wrote a piece for Ms. after, explaining how that class emboldened my students in a way I had never seen before. Every year I teach it—including this year—I witness students find and claim the power of their voices.

As one student shared in her writing portfolio:

“As I look at the content of my portfolio and all of the work I have done over the quarter, I see a theme emerging–one I had not intended but ultimately found that I needed. That is the theme of voice. Throughout my lifetime, I have struggled immensely with using my voice. Many who know me now may describe me as quiet and anxious. But that was not always the case. Through my experiences as a queer, fat, neurodivergent, defiant eldest daughter of an abusive alcoholic father, I eventually learned to be as quiet and invisible as possible to survive, both inside and outside my house. As I’ve explored the power of feminist writing over the quarter, I have learned that a central part of that power is marginalized and silenced voices telling their stories and reclaiming space to be heard and shared.” 

Students in this (and all my) class are multiply marginalized: They represent a cross section of racial, ethnic and national communities; span the gender and sexuality spectrums; are diverse in size and ability; and anything but economically privileged. Each brought their own personal history, some deeply painful. 

The class is an advanced seminar. Part of the time was spent analyzing feminist texts and part hosting authors. The premise of the course is that a text is feminist if it is telling a hidden and/or minoritized history. We ask why people are being silenced, and which people? The answer always comes back to misogyny. 

Misogyny, Kate Manne explained, is about policing and punishing women and femmes who stray from patriarchal norms. What better way to punish, than via silencing and violence?

In all of my classes, when we look at misogyny and patriarchy, I always focus on the resistance: Women, nonbinary people and femmes always fight back—and the fighting back matters.

We ask why people are being silenced, and which people? The answer always comes back to misogyny. 

In The Power of Feminist Writing, the resistance happens through writing: unsilencing. It happens when students find their voice. We don’t study one social movement after another like my other classes. We read and hear authors speaking truth to power.

In nearly every text assigned, the truth is about some sort of violence the author experienced—often sexual assault or structural violence, connected to racism, transphobia or the like, camouflaged as non-corporal violence. Nearly every student could relate to some aspect of the stories told in the assigned readings; the silenced narratives unearthed; thus, their own truths validated. 

Student Lo Radclyffe captured the process in their portfolio this way: 

“Feminist texts have a power to heal through their writing by taking the power of shame away from an experience. Sharing our stories loosens the grip they have on us. These stories share that we are not alone. They allow our readers to be reflected in them. Feminist texts unite us in solidarity.”

The memoir section of the class was incredibly validating to most of the students. We start with Melissa Febos’ piece “The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act,” in which she tells us that marginalized stories matter. Febos concluded with these words: 

“Tell me about your navel. Tell me about your rape. Tell me about your mad love affair, how you forgot and then remembered yourself. … Tell me about your drunk father and your sister who lost her mind. … Don’t tell me that the experiences of a vast majority of our planet’s human population are marginal, are not relevant …”

The final project is the aforementioned Feminist Writing Portfolio that includes the students’ work, some revised, some drafts done in class with our many esteemed guests. A couple students will publicly share their portfolios here, while others only shared them with me. And share they did.

Sharing our stories loosens the grip they have on us. These stories share that we are not alone. They allow our readers to be reflected in them.

Lo Radclyffe, student

In addition to the pain many poured into the beautifully curated, safe space of the portfolios, we built a community in the room where everyone validated each other. The students’ stories matter. The structural and real violence of patriarchy and misogyny tells them they don’t, but everything we read all quarter, and every guest who visited undid that message, screaming at them, “Your trauma is real.”

One student, Levi Gutierrez, captured their collective dignity this way:

“Feminism is a mindset that is pro-liberation of oppressed groups and the shift to minority narratives in hopes of rewriting histories. I continue to write for myself, my queer and Mexican communities, and any other marginalized group I am allied with who cannot write for themselves. Through the writing process, it became crystal clear that the power of a collective feminist voice is unlike any other.”

For 10 weeks, twice a week, for two-hour stints, students were validated in a way they hadn’t been prior. It happened via the texts we read; our conversations; the guests who spoke with them; and many told me, because of the way I facilitated the class.

Feminism is a mindset that is pro-liberation of oppressed groups and the shift to minority narratives in hopes of rewriting histories.

Levi Gutierrez

Misogyny-induced pain and trauma shouldn’t only be acknowledged and validated in a GWSS classroom. The students and I should feel confident that anyone would believe our trauma is real. But we all know that is not the case, which is why many of us were sad to see the class end. 

That said, it was time. Especially as the person tasked with reading all of their eloquent, powerful, pain-soaked work, I needed us to close the books. I hope my students keep the voices they found. We all heard and believed each other. Because we were all telling the truth, some of them out loud for the first time.

*Thank you to students Levi Gutierrez, Karianne Hornberger and Lo Radclyffe for reading an early draft of this to make sure I accurately captured the energy and sentiment of the class.

Ms. Classroom wants to hear from educators and students being impacted by legislation attacking public education, higher education, gender, race and sexuality studies, activism and social justice in education, and diversity, equity and inclusion programs for our series, ‘Banned! Voices from the Classroom.’ Submit pitches and/or op-eds and reflections (between 500-800 words) to Ms. contributing editor Aviva Dove-Viebahn at adove-viebahn@msmagazine.com. Posts will be accepted on a rolling basis.

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Dr. Julie Shayne is a teaching professor and co-founder of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington Bothell. She is the author and editor of four books—most recently, Persistence Is Resistance: Celebrating 50 Years of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies.. Shayne is also the co-creator of the Feminist Digital Center, a hub of open-access student created feminist scholarship. She has published previously for Ms.