The following guest blog by Krystle Merchant is the final post in a three-part series on teaching for social justice featuring the work of educators in primary, middle, and high school classrooms.
Krystle Merchant is a teacher and proud feminist at an all-girls high school in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
As a young, black female history teacher at a private school in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., I often feel pressured to speak to colleagues and parents on behalf of many different communities. As a result, I try to educate girls to be willing and able to do the same as adult women, regardless of which communities they represent. This is especially true in my Women in the United States senior history elective, where I draw my students’ attention to their current and future experiences as women, the importance of gender to the meaning of history, and the construction of the historical narrative.
On the first day of class, we start with a simple survey. The first question, “Are you a feminist?,” always gets a qualified answer. Even seniors at an all-girls high school, who are choosing to take a course in women’s history, do not feel comfortable identifying as feminists. The term is so deeply connected to negative stereotypes of women, that even when they give a good working definition of feminism, they do not want to associate themselves with the term.
To chip away at their internalized barrier to feminism, I ask my girls to identify, follow, and respond regularly to a feminist blog such as the fbomb, Feministing, and Feminists for Choice. From there, the course proceeds by reviewing much of the same content covered in their junior year survey course on U.S. History.
However, rather than discussing notable American women or women’s contributions to the usual textbook topics, we talk about periodization, access to power, and production. The latter term “production” refers to the sources available for our study and whether they were produced by women. Women’s societal status at any given time determined the kinds of information they could produce and whether that information became accessible for later study.
We ask questions about women’s roles, specifically identifying where they have contributed, created, and critiqued. We also think about where women’s images and roles have been defined for them. Rather than using wars and presidential administrations to determine important eras and breaking points for our study, we look at expectations placed on women such as Linda Kerber’s Republican motherhood, women’s roles on the frontier, and the invention of discreet sanitary products.
Instead of a textbook, I provide a variety of primary and secondary sources that have come out of the development of women’s history as an academic field, as well as posts from the blogs the girls follow. Sources such as Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil’s Through Women’s Eyes: An American History Through Documents, Kerber’s Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, and Miriam Schneir’s Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings provide a mix of government documents, organizational statements, letters, essays, reviews, and photos.
Where women are excluded from traditional text types, we talk about power and agency. Where they produce the texts, we discuss the importance of gender to the author’s interpretations.
At the end of the semester, we conclude with a unit titled “Us, Women” in which we investigate feminism and women’s experiences in the U.S. today. Through the blog posts they’ve collected throughout the semester, we discuss issues of body image, women’s civic participation, buying power, and the meaning of feminism for teenage girls. Since each girl chooses a different blog at the outset, we usually get a variety of perspectives on each of the major issues of the unit.
Finally, we retake the survey from the first day. “What is feminism?” I ask. “It’s the process of advocating for the social, political, and economic equality of women,” they respond.
“Are you a feminist?,” I ask. “Of course,” they say.