Teaching Boys Feminism

The following is cross-posted at Gender Across Borders and Equality 101 for their jointly hosted Feminism & Education series.





Each year, boys sign up for my high school course on feminism (photo, Ileana Jiménez)

When I was in college, I always thought that teaching girls about feminism was my life’s calling. It turns out that teaching boys about feminism has made that calling even more profound.

In the past three years, I have taught a high school course on feminism titled Fierce and Fabulous: Feminist Writers, Artists, and Activists. Each year, girls and boys sign up for the class and each year, these young men are awakened not only to injustices regarding race, class, and gender in national and global contexts but also to injustices regarding how they have been socialized as boys.

With every example of women, girls, queer folks, and people of color facing discrimination, marginalization, and violence, boys awaken. White male boys begin to realize the male privilege they have enjoyed in a culture that valorizes powerful white men while boys of color gain language to describe their painful experiences of racism and classism. And each year, without fail, regardless of racial identity or socioeconomic class, the boys—both straight and gay—express their fear of being called a “fag.”

The boys in my feminism course participated in Columbia's "What is Feminist Politics Now?" conference in 2008 (photo, Ileana Jiménez)

Boys of all backgrounds begin to share that they have been robbed of learning how to express their masculinity in ways that are healthy, loving, and emotive. They begin to see, via feminism, that they have grown up in a culture that glamorizes what Don McPherson calls “toxic masculinity.” By the end of the course, they are ready to make some changes in how they navigate the world.

How does this happen? In the same way that the “personal is political” becomes an important catalyst for women reaching feminist consciousness, it is also critical for becoming a male ally.

For example, last fall, I invited Emily May, co-founder of the incredible anti-street harassment movement Hollaback!, to come speak to my class. During the course of conversation, May invited the students to share their experiences with street harassment. One by one, the girls in the class began to voice their horrifying yet brave stories on New York City’s streets and subways.

I’ll never forget one boy’s reaction to these stories. Ian was so moved by his peers’ experiences that he submitted a post to May’s Hollaback! blog. In it he wrote:

It was during the session with Hollaback! that my eyes truly opened. The girls in my class started speaking about their past experiences with street harassment and the stories just didn’t stop . . . I was shocked at the kinds of things that were happening to my classmates and I was more shocked as to how clueless I was during all of this . . . If these women have gone through traumatic experiences from which they had lasting memories, then most definitely women I know even more personally have gone through this type of harassment as well. It is scary to think that all of these things are going on without ever being called out. It’s scary to think that a man can completely get away with making a woman feel uncomfortable or unsafe on the street or subway.”

Ian was so moved by his female peers' street harassment stories, he blogged at Hollaback! to support them (photo, Ileana Jiménez)

Days after Ian wrote this blog post, his classmate Grace testified at a New York City Council hearing on street harassment. Ian’s support, along with that of the rest of Grace’s class, made her going up in front of an entire room sharing an intensely personal testimony that much more bearable. She had the backing of her classmates—both male and female—in the fight not only against street harassment but also against our larger culture of misogyny.

This same boy and another male classmate also led the male allies action spot at last fall’s SPARK Summit to launch a movement against the sexualization of girls and women in the media. As a result of the conference, my student Steven has talked about the importance of men being a part of the feminist movement, “Because men tend to be at the top of the ‘food chain,’ having their support is vital to getting the message heard. When no one in the oppressing group is willing to listen, nothing happens. But boys will listen for a little longer when I talk about what I’ve done with my feminism class. Another role for men in feminism is to show that the things feminism is fighting against affects everyone not just exclusively women . . . Men in the feminist movement give hope to some women who think that all men are against feminist thinking and don’t understand what oppression is.”

In the following video made by the Women’s Media Center, Steven shares more of his thoughts on gender justice for both women and men.

Steven’s vision is clear. Young men can and will connect to feminism if they see it as a tool for connecting to their peers—both male and female—to rid their lives of issues that are pertinent to youth such as racism, homophobia, and the sexualization of both men and women in the media.

In other words, boys will connect to feminism if they see it as a way to create partnerships with other boys and girls to make social change.

I’ve read many horror stories about women’s studies professors being heckled by male students who are just there to make a sexist scene. In the high school setting where I teach, I have never had that experience. Instead, the boys in my classes are curious about how feminism might connect to their lives. They want to know if feminism can help them become better versions of themselves in a world that tells them only one version is acceptable.

The boys in my feminism course have taught me that it is essential that we teach them about the various global feminisms so that we can finally reach gender, racial, and economic justice together as fully realized men and women. They have taught me that it is crucial that we bring a feminist lens to not only high school classrooms but middle and elementary schools as well.

My dream as a result? That whole generations of young women and men will never experience and/or perpetuate everything from street harassment to rape; frat boy misogyny to workplace discrimination; bullying of queer kids to the banning of LGBT soldiers in the military. All of these issues connect along lines of gender and sexuality, power and politics. If we teach gender justice to all young people, we might just make lasting institutional change.

My student Ian said it best, “Any man who finds himself ashamed of many of the things that women go through could be considered a feminist; I hope to gain from this class a better understanding of myself as a man.”


23 thoughts on “Teaching Boys Feminism

  1. This is a really excellent and poignant account. Sometimes we cast all men as villains in this struggle, and it’s so important to engage them early on. Show them what it’s like – I have faith that they will rise to our defense if they are educated about the world around them (just like all students).

    Thanks for the great work, Ileana!

  2. Lovely post! I have taught feminism at the college level, and have found that most of my male students are feminists in philosophy but they (and many female students) reject and fear the word. There is a lot of negativity surrounding that word.

    As feminists, I believe that it’s very important to include men, including white men, with the education and movement, not just for their help in reaching feminism’s goals, but also out of basic fairness: it makes no sense to silence and exclude men when feminism was born out of our rejection of the silencing and exclusion of women, gays and lesbians, and people of color.

  3. Thank you for speaking your voice and allowing others to truly listen …

    My 15 year young homeschooling son has watched as his mother has helped him learn to walk through fire. We have held one another’s trembling hearts, as we travel beyond one more travail into another ..

    One thing my very eloquent and most polite teen has learned .. Compassion.

    I tell people; ” I am raising a real Man.”

    Thank you for making my ‘work’ easier.

    Supernatural momma K


    DAN MIDDLETON from facebook – passed this on to me. Goddess-sent, K

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  5. Great post. This is a great topic and I have wanted to discuss it with my students (I teach a gifted program). Do you have any specific material you use or curriculum you pull from? I’m just curious about your approach with this age group and what is and isn’t appropriate to discuss. I work with 7th and 8th graders, but I know they can handle meaty topics.

    • I completely agree that 7th and 8th grade students can handle these kinds of issues and conversations, most importantly because they experience these issues everyday. I do have a curriculum, and it changes every year in terms of texts, activities, and trips. The activities usually depend on what’s on the feminist calendar in NYC, such as conferences and the like. There are some texts that have been mainstays such as those by bell hooks and Virginia Woolf; and mainstay trips to the Brooklyn Museum to see Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.”

      I also have a relationship with the organization GEMS to support them in their work with commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). There’s always a theory to practice component of the class, and by that I mean, they learn feminist theory (or theories) while learning how to move that theory to activism in their community, or more specifically, New York City. The students have also created their own blog to document their experience of the course and their evolving ideas and responses to the texts, trips, and activism they are doing. All of the links I’ve provided here go to different posts on my blog so that you can see how I’ve implemented different aspects of the course. Definitely keep me updated on your work!

  6. What a wonderful and inspiring post showing that boys will choose to be part of the solution once someone explains to them the nature of the discrimination women and other groups have suffered.

  7. I am blown away by a feminist studies class in HIGH SCHOOL! I wouldn’t have dreamed of such a thing when I was the lonely feminist in my huge suburban high school, teased for being a man-hater whenever I spoke my mind. Now I have four years to beg, plead, and pray for you to bring your teaching here to Minneapolis in time for my own son to take part!

    Speaking of that son, I absolutely agree with you that creating feminist men is a vital piece of the equality puzzle. Compassionate, thoughtful, and connected men will transform society. Thank you so much for all of your work! I’m passing along the link to your piece on my own blog.

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  9. Such a great article! I have had the same sentiments for a very long time. About 5 years ago when I was teaching in Jamaica, I started to include workshops to address racism, sexism and violence in the community. I did the workshops without the labels and did it very informally under a tree and outside of the classroom environment. Few of the male students expressed the same feelings Ian did — they didn’t know when girls said “no” it really meant no and the harassment that the girls were enduring. What happened in the next few weeks was incredible, the male students were respectful towards their female students and vice versa. The sexual innuendos/jokes stopped.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

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  12. This is a great post – thanks. I’ve reposted it on Media Misses.

    Not many people are aware, but men have always been allies in feminism, and, indeed, were able to help women from their positions. As fathers, artists were able to teach their daughters fine art, for example, at a time when art school charged women double and did not allow them to draw nude models. There are many more examples of men helping women – whether as fathers, educators, etc. Another example – lots of male educators in the past (can’t recall names) have supported women being educated and it helped spur it happening.

    As well, men from all over the world (many people wrongly believe feminism is a western idea) have been instrumental in helping women advance.

    It’s very fascinating and I wish it were written about more often. 🙂

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  14. I am really confused, my son hates his teachers feels bad about being male and does not want to go to college. What about the boys that are checking out!

    He said many of his friends feel the same way. Most of them have been raised by single mothers and come hang out at our house. Their mom’s boyfriends or step-dads treat them crappy and mom ignores them. They feel, marginalized and criticized for being male. They have told me most of the girls are going to college but hardly any of the guys they know. I have heard that the female teachers cater to the girls and criticize the boys.

    He had his first male teacher in high school and really identified with him and his teaching style. He actually asked “why don’t they let guys teach”.

    He has developed a bad attitude, but girls are always coming over asking for him. I don’t see how he is going to do anything but party. He always has a girlfriend but says he hates women and will never marry after his mom left us. He has a couple of really great friends, decent guys, that the girls will hardly talk to, I just don’t understand the way things are now.

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