Letter to Obama: A Call for Teaching Feminism in K-12 Classrooms

Emily Heroy’s post at Equality 101 about the call to teach feminism in high schools in the US reminds me of an assignment I gave to students last year in my course on feminism to high school juniors and seniors titled Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Women Writers, Artists, and Activists.

In the wake of excitement after Obama’s inauguration, I asked students to write a letter to our new President asking him to examine the issue of gender and education with a critical eye on the ways in which feminism might be addressed in the curriculum. All of the letters, 11 total (8 by girls, 3 by boys), were fantastic. Here’s one from an African American female student that captures the urgency of teaching issues of gender and feminism in K-12 classrooms:

Dear Mr. President,

As the newly established President of the United States, there are quite a few tasks that you must tackle. There are problems in the education system, the environment, and problems abroad. Despite all of the overwhelming problems, I suggest picking the internal problems apart first and foremost, because one cannot expect to solve everyone else’s problems (like the war in Iraq) without first examining internal flaws. If you do this, you may be saved a great deal of trouble in the future. I will present you one problem that I feel should be attended to and then I will give you brief suggestions on how to solve them.

The first problem that I would like to address is the lack of intersectional feminism within education. Feminism is a wonderful example of how all social injustices interlock. In high schools on down in the education system, children are taught modified African American studies. Students are taught an even more limited version of Women’s Studies. They learn nothing about the struggles of say a Japanese woman during WWII or of an Ethiopian girl’s everyday life.

It is understandable that teachers cannot be expected to cram decades of struggles into 12 years of study. I just feel that there should be more time in the curriculum starting in the lower grades (if they can learn about the slave trade, they can learn about feminism) dedicated to learning about feminism and the goals behind it.

To do that, I propose that by fourth grade, students be exposed to basic feminist ideas. Then in middle school, there should be a month in each grade dedicated to learning about basic feminist vocabulary and grasping the ideas and goals of the first, second, and third waves of feminism.

After sixth and seventh grade, students should begin learning about how to cultivate their views, feminist or not, and learning about the great many intersections that exist within feminism. By the time students are in high school, they are armed with the basic tools to begin tackling social injustice. In high school, students would examine global feminism and then they can start to connect it to US feminism and other forms of activism. This will take feminist education up to tenth grade. By this time, students should be able to choose feminist electives in their junior and senior year.

I honestly feel that feminism and gender justice education must be incorporated into education. Every social justice movement deserves to be represented. Issues of gender and feminism must be taught to both girls and boys, young and old. Not only women should learn feminism. Men should be involved in this new learning system. It would be very good to dispel the idea that only women are feminist. I think it would be one of the best ways to bring about new thinking and create a better world for everyone.

Thank you for reading my letter. I hope that I was able to give you ideas on a plan of action as you face your term. I hope you have a successful term!

Sincerely,

D. Shepard

Brava to my student for writing with a vision for how we must change our classroom content for greater attention to gender justice and feminism. Her vision and that of her peers in the class are what we should all aspire to achieve in making not only equitable classrooms but inclusive ones as well. Her argument for a feminist curriculum is just as pressing now as it was when she wrote the letter to Obama a year ago.

I also tip my hat to Canada’s Miss G Project for working on getting a Women’s and Gender Studies course into the Ontario secondary school curriculum. What we need is a feminist educational movement right here in the US that will do the same.

The time is now to make these changes. Our students are waiting for us.

This post can also be found at Equality 101.

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22 thoughts on “Letter to Obama: A Call for Teaching Feminism in K-12 Classrooms

  1. I marvel at your commitment to human rights issues as a vital teacher in our society. In this letter, it’s very evident that the student thought hard about the perfect phrasing of her issue using directness, professionalism, and heart. What an excellent way to teach writing!

    As a future high school teacher (currently pursuing a career in Library Science), I gain much hope from teachers such as yourself that seek to incorporate social justice within their curriculum. Although, I believe you’re teaching in a charter or private school? How would you suggest a public school teacher incorporate such “taboo” literature that isn’t considered worthy of class time by the administration ?

    • Hello Kelsey, I think your question is so important. In my experience, whether you are at a public or private school, there are all kinds of struggles with curriculum development and inclusion. But there can also be triumphs as well. Here are some suggestions regarding how you might incorporate feminist themes and issues in your classroom:
      1. Use the texts already in your curriculum (or library) as a way to begin the conversation. Traditional high school English texts such as The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby have rich starting points for talking about issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.
      2. Pair texts that are already in your curriculum with a new text such as a poem or short story that you think might raise a social justice/feminist theme. Both texts can be used “in conversation” with each other as ways to highlight the themes you’d like to discuss. Bringing in a poem or short story that can be easily photocopied will address the issue of not having the budget to purchase any new texts.
      3. Research texts that are your “magic wand” texts for the classroom–in other words, the texts that you really want to teach or texts you think might be a strong pairing with those that already exist so that they don’t seem random but instead enrich the offering already in place. Ask your chair if you can present your research at the next department meeting to see if other teachers and the chair can agree to expanding the reading list and curriculum for more inclusion.

      Hope that helps!

  2. It is exciting to see such inspired and inspiring teaching that makes a difference! It is also wonderful to find kindred souls! Keep at it! This is awesome!

  3. I need more time to think about this blog post, but as of now, I must disparage your advocation for the teaching of feminism in lower schools. I will list a few reasons (that definitely need extrapolation) that explain why I disagree.

    1) This title of feminism creates an equality in and of itself that encourages an us-against-them mentality at a young age. Shouldn’t we teach individual equality and have children – of either sex – assimilate to the norm?

    2) There exists many forms of oppression – race, sexual preference, ethnicity, and so on. Should we have a class for all of these? Is feminism more important than racial issues? Is it more important than the issues between the Arabs and the Jews (I’m sure that few children know about this in forth grade)?

    3) Do not history classes teach lessons about oppression, including feminist perspectives? And do not english classes discuss feminist perspectives of language that pinpoint failures in rhetoric that work as violence towards women? If these subjects do not teach these issues, then shouldn’t we improve how we teach these subjects.

    I appreciate your advocation for feminism and social change, but I disapprove of your advocation for feminism in the classroom of younger students.

    • Thank you for your comment Paul. I appreciate it as an opportunity for dialogue.

      At a recent professional day at my school (what’s called in-service in some schools), teachers were invited to present to other teachers on their best practices and innovation in the classroom. I presented on my elective on feminism that I teach to high school juniors and seniors. Present in the room were lower school teachers who not only walked away inspired by the presentation but talked to me after my workshop about the ways in which they address gender in the classroom. They shared with me that issues of gender come up every day in lower school: everything from what children want to wear, to how long or short children would like their hair to be, to what toys they believe they should play with, to friendship circles, etc. Although my colleagues addressed these issues directly when they came up, as a result of my presentation, they said they wanted to do it in a more formal way and wanted to figure out the most age appropriate way to address gender with children within the curriculum itself.

      To your second point, feminism is about addressing forms of all oppression (racism, classism, homophobia, etc.), so yes, it is appropriate to talk about it with children in ways that are most developmentally accessible. Based on my experience in schools for the past 13 years, unfortunately, children do face hurtful comments from other children on issues such as race, religion, and culture. I encountered it myself as a child in first grade onwards and my high school students write about these childhood experiences all of the time. Teaching children how to learn about each other’s cultures and traditions and to respect each other’s cultures instead of bullying and making fun is at its core a feminist value.

      To your last point, unfortunately, English and history classes do not always if ever include feminist perspectives and voices. So, yes, I agree, we should improve how we teach these subjects.

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  6. What an awesome letter! Brava to you and to your students.

    @Paul, I’ll be interested to read Ileana’s responses to your questions. Meantime, here are mine:

    1) http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/04/03/faq-ive-got-nothing-against-equal-rights-for-women-but-weve-got-that-so-isnt-feminism-nowadays-just-going-too-far/

    At the moment, us-vs-them is the norm that feminism seeks to replace. Eg: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrpvlmTTJ7o

    2) http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/04/12/faq-why-are-you-concentrating-on-x-when-y-is-so-much-more-important/

    3) No, they don’t. Have you been in a high school history class lately? An English class? We should improve how we teach these subjects — AND we should teach the history of how we have addressed these intersecting oppressions, and the frameworks to continue the incredible struggle that we still face.

    • Thanks for your very kind words Rachel! And the links, will take a look for sure.

      I agree re: English and history classes are devoid of all kinds of voices and perspectives, especially of leaders and writers of color regardless of gender. LGBT perspectives are also absent–for example Bayard Rustin’s leadership as a gay African American activist worked tirelessly alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. but too many students have never heard of him. Any mention of leaders of color in history books, especially the bland corporate style ones, are relegated to “colorful” boxes in the corner that are too often overlooked and forgotten.

  7. @Paul Henne- I think part of the student’s point was that feminism, rather than being “more important” than any other form of oppression, provides a framework for talking about the intersectionality of all kinds of oppression. The experience of being a woman in America for instance does not trump the experience of being black, but the experience of being a black woman is certainly shaped by both.

    Nevertheless, you raise a good point in that “Feminism” as a movement does have to contend with culture perceptions of the movement as pitting women against men, even if those within the movement understand it to be working against a system that privileges a select few at the expense of both men and women alike. (The patriarchy hurts everyone, not just women.) Furthermore, as to the “oppression olympics,” the feminist movement can tend to focus on the experience of women who are privileged in many other ways, and leave out swaths of women, like women of color and women with disabilities, who feel that the movement doesn’t speak for them. Hopefully talking about feminism as it relates to other forms of oppression early on in the educational system would actually make the movement more inclusive, rather than begetting this “us-vs-them” mentality you describe.

    I went to an all-girls school (Hi Ms. Jimenez!) and we did indeed have history classes that taught lessons about “feminist perspectives.” And we probably got more than most by virtue of having an emphasis on educating women. However, we learned very little about contemporary feminism, and “intersectional feminism” didn’t enter my vocab until after college (again, brava D Shepard!) Feminism was perfunctory and historical rather than engaging and relevant, and probably kept me away from the WAGS dept at my college. I don’t know if there should be an established curriculum for feminism in elementary school; in any case I think it’s highly unlikely to happen any time soon. I do think talking about feminism in school is important, and I like the idea above of incorporating it into the curriculum that is already there. I think that’s a good way to achieve the goal your student describes, of letting kids come to their own conclusions while presenting them with a feminist framework to think about all kinds of oppression.

    • Hello Elise! How wonderful to have you comment on my blog! Terrific that you found it! The course I taught at your high school on African-American and Latina Women Writers directly addressed feminism from the perspective of women of color. It was a course I was fond of teaching there expressly because it engaged young women of all backgrounds to examine their own ideas regarding race, class, gender, and sexuality. I found it particularly important to teach the course at an all-girls school because at times some girls schools don’t always address how girls and women experience and navigate the world from the standpoint of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Instead some girls schools usually address girls’/women’s issues only from an empowerment perspective–important to do, of course, but still limited given issues of privilege, access, etc. Great to hear from you!

  8. I found your blog via Jezebel actually. I think I felt beat over the head in high school with the whole “Women in [insert profession here]” meme that by the time I got to senior electives I was a little burnt out on it, which is a shame bc I had this very narrow idea of what “feminism” was. But my memories of high school are pretty cloudy already, so suffice to say that I imagine discussions of feminism in k-12 would have different effects on different students.

  9. Hi Ileana – Just found your wonderful blog via feministing. I’m a Smith ’96er – we spoke briefly about teaching at the recent Gloria Steinem event, and although I’m at the community college level so much of what you say applies here and I’m excited to continue reading – hope you continue writing and publishing in a variety of forums.

    • So great to hear from you! I am super glad that you found my blog through feministing. Thank you for your encouragement and support, it means a great deal to me! Looking forward to hearing your thoughts in the future. Keep fighting the good fight!

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  12. Hello, my boyfriend and I are really interested in volunteering in elementary schools to teach children about women’s history and social injustice. We’re both 17 and have taken women’s studies courses at our community college. It’s frustrating and astounding that so little of women’s history has been talked about when it has been so important to our country. What are some topics that are accessible and appropriate for elementary school children from ages 9-11. We also want to have an activity that is fun for the kids and teaches a lesson about inequality. The issues we really want to address are suffrage, ERA, wage gaps, racial discrimination, gender based bullying, and body image. What is a good way of approaching these subjects with kids, are they age appropriate, how can we jump through district hoops and what activities would be fun for kids and informative?

    Hannah

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