Teaching, Studying and Living Feminism

Part 3: Living Feminism

Some time ago, I started a three part series devoted to feminism. I did not want it to take that long before I actually completed it, but it is never too late!

The first two parts were about teaching feminism and gender equality in high school and about ways to study feminism. Of course, they were just my personal experiences, but they  were both very interesting to write as they enabled me to see how much could be done in the classroom (from experience) to improve gender equality and to realize how much more can be done still.

This is when part 3, living Feminism, comes in. It is one thing to read about feminism and gender equality; teaching the subject is another – in both cases, you are making steps towards equality. Even if both these experiences can be painful, as you may very well be discouraged to discover how sexist the world still is or to hear students tell you that feminism is for angry, ugly women, they are enlightening. There is also something intriguing about searching “feminist” on Pinterest and finding pictures like this one, which rings very true:

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Only to find that one as you scroll down:

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Don’t get me wrong. I love fashion and I am always impressed by the creativity of some pieces, but how do you go from searching “feminist” online to being shown images of fashion, jewelry and makeup? Is that because feminism is about women, and just because it is about women it must lead to what we are all told women like: shoes, dresses, mascara, diamonds (a girl’s best friend for sure ^^) and pearls? And in that context, is it really possible to live feminism?

Some people will tell me: yes, it is. Of course, it is! I do not disagree… But there is still a long way to go. A little anecdote will serve as my example.

I know a girl who studies feminism; she does not study it as I do – it is actually her field of study. She rages and revolts when she hears sexist jokes; she is very independent and she lives her life like a pro. But then… love comes in and everything seems to disappear. We are back on the same old tracks. All of a sudden, it is alright that the guy she likes has sex with her whenever he likes, but will not be there when she is the one who wants some affection. He will go, take what he wants, and refuse to sleep next to her. And she finds excuses for him – and she will say that it is normal that he did not agree to be with her when she wanted to because he was busy and she was being tiresome, as if she had forgotten that she, too, could say no and that her body was not his object. That he should treat her with respect.

Of course, in real life, things are a little more complicated – there are issues of self-love, trust and commitment on both the boy and the girl’s sides. And I am not saying that the boy is an ass, only that my friend sometimes forgets about all the values she defends so fiercely when she is around some men, as if male presence muted her.

The sad part is… it is true of many women who believe in equality. How many times have I seen very outspoken lady friends fall silent when around men? How often have I noticed that in a group composed of both men and women, men usually speak the most? They just direct the conversation. Then again, not always. Not all men. Not all women. But the pattern can be observed everywhere…

Such observations make me wonder if I am quiet because I am girl and not simply because I am quiet. They make me ask myself if I like cooking and a clean house and being a good, nicely dressed hostess because, as I often jokingly say, I was “raised to be a housewife” or just because I actually do enjoy these things and would still like them if I were a boy. They make me wonder where I would be right now if I had been born male.

Because of such observations, every time I see a girl wearing a lot of makeup, clinging to a boy, I wonder if she is happy or if she does everything FOR the boy because that’s what magazines have told her she must do ever since she was a child. If she’s happy and she loves makeup then it’s awesome. But what if she is afraid the boy will not like her anymore if she does not wear it? What if she is actually really self-conscious because other girls are mean to her because of her looks? Then it is a sad situation.

In a weird way, I think maybe that’s what living feminism is: rather than just trying to live by a set of rules, it is questioning the world around you. Always. And questioning yourself, your habits, your thoughts, your prejudices and preconceived ideas, for we all have them, and taking a close look at the way you treat women, but also men.

As as Maya Angelou would say:

“I think a hero is any person really intent on making this world a better place for all people”.

Teaching, Studying and Living Feminism

Part 2: Studying Feminism

Hello and welcome to second part of Teaching, Studying and Living Feminism!

Working on gender equality and feminism with my students  showed me how easy it can be to teach feminism, but also to study it. I am not saying, however, that the subject itself is an easy one to manipulate, quite the opposite actually. One may too quickly come to biased conclusion or make shortcuts that should not be made. It is a fine and fragile line between learning about feminism and making close-minded statements about it.

What is easy though is finding sources. Today, you can pick from a variety of sources to study gender equality, queer theory and feminism. Of course, there are the classics, like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own or Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter. Then, there are many newer releases that you can take a peek at, like Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist.

The amazing thing about being provided with an Internet connection is that if you do not know where to start, someone will have a list of the best feminist reads ready for you. Kristian Wilson published one I enjoy quite a bit on the Bustle website: 69 Books Every Feminist Should Read. I obviously haven’t read all 69 books on the list, I am still learning and studying, but what I like about this list is that it spreads from Mary Wollstonecraft to Roxanne Gay and does not concentrate on white female writers only, which I believe is essential if you are going to study gender equality. How could you focus on women and their social issues and forget that a vast majority of them also has to deal with issues of racism, religious proscription or homophobia?

Here are some of the books from the list I really want to read:

  1. Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
  2. The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedman
  3. The Hidden Face of Eve, Nawal El Saadawi
  4. Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay
  5. Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
  6. The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf
  7. Mom & Me & Mom, Maya Angelou
  8. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  9. The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
  10. Full Frontal Feminism, Jennifer Valenti (because that cover!!!)

Then, there are blogs, websites, articles… Sometimes, I feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information you can find, even just here on WordPress. But it is also here that I have read some of the best pieces I had read in a long time. A good example is the blog language: a feminist guide, which had a very good article about whether men and women wrote differently and how showing that you are a woman writer could impact your chances of getting published. And impacting your chances it did…

So that’s why studying feminism still matters today. Sure, advances have been made. Sure, many women can now have a career and wear what they wish to wear… But not all can. And women are still scared. They still tend to remain silent while men speak. And if reading about feminism and gender equality can do one thing, it can open people’s eyes to the issues all women face and help us all find solutions and fight for a fairer world.

Hoping to see you soon for the last part of the series 🙂

Teaching, Studying and Living Feminism

Part 1: Teaching Feminism in High School

I just finished a sequence about gender equality and feminism with my high school students. At first, the kids were sceptical, but the classes ended up being a success! Emma Watson’s HeForShe speech at the UN was the main focus of the chapter, but the ideas of gender stereotypes and feminism were first introduced via two fun, yet insightful BuzzFeed videos.

On the teaching front, the experience was both difficult and thrilling. We started with the “I’m a woman, but I’m not” video from Buzzfeed.I then asked each of my students to make a similar sentence that applied to them personally – some of the answers were very interesting! Here are some examples of what they said:

“I’m a man, but I don’t think I am better than women.”
“I’m a woman, but I’m not talkative.”
“I’m a man, but I’m not violent.”
“I’m a woman, and I love playing football (soccer).”
“I’m a man, and I love shopping with my girl friends!”

The exercise helped them see how similar they all were, which was a good introduction to feminism. I then asked them to explain to me what they thought feminism was. As it turned out, they did not really  know what to say, but some of them did think that it was a woman-only thing and that is was about making women superior to men, a view which is, unfortunately, often conveyed by the media …

It seems their opinion changed, however, after we studied Emma Watson’s speech. It was really hard for French kids to grasp everything Emma Watson was saying in English (without any subtitles), especially as the speech was fairly long, but once they got it, their reaction was very positive. Of course, specialists in women studies or feminism might argue that Emma Watson’s speech does not entirely serve the feminist cause as it relies heavily on male involvement (which leads us back to the point of women needing men) and it insists too much on the fact that men don’t have the benefits of equality. I would not disagree. I do think, though, that it is a good place to start because it is simple enough, which is even more important when you’re teaching English as a second language.

At the end of the sequence, the students’ final task was to write and give a speech about gender equality, and I was glad to see some of the girls really took the assignment as an opportunity to express themselves. The two most impressive speeches I heard, though, did not simply focus on the traditional roles of men and women in society. The first speech was about female sexuality, slut-shaming and rape culture. The second was a boy’s statement that the only way to really change things for the better would be to give children a real, egalitarian, stereotype-free education. This, friends, made my day because I felt like I had really helped them grow and develop their thought process (while teaching them English of course haha).

Teaching feminism in high school is possible and essential. And where I teach, I find that language classes are one of the only places where it can be taught. In fact, the same is true of minority rights and discrimination in general because our language classes are the only ones where students can really discuss these topics and express themselves as language classes are communication-driven. What do you think?

I’ll see you soon with Part 2: studying feminism 🙂