Bending’ gender: how to teach feminism

| August 19, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Lara van Lelyveld

I can now see that I have always been a feminist.

Idid not know as a child that this ideological position had a name and, at times, my ideas have been ill-formed and my arguments fallacious, but that insistent voice in my head, asking why there are two sets of rules – one for men and one for women – has remained.

Pressing for change

On the cusp of my 29th birthday, I stood in front of a class for the first time as an educator, a ‘shaper of young minds’. I was hungry for a chance to take a different kind of concrete action. I wanted to help create the kind of society so powerfully set out in the preamble of our Constitution: “We, the people of South Africa… believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.”1 I was particularly concerned with gender issues.

Identities and opinions: the difference

In my experience, the first step in creating deep, critical thinkers is helping learners understand that there is a difference between their identities and their opinions. For example, if someone in the class were to ask: “Why is it that only women are involved in certain activities, like caring for very young children?” the learners in the class need to see this as an abstract discussion – not an attack on their parents or the way their families might live. Then it becomes possible to discuss any and all issues in a class. Helping learners to discuss difficult (and sometimes impossible) questions is a skill that will serve them well in all spheres of life.

Commit to the Constitution

I use the Bill of Rights as a set of rules we need to follow in our classroom. When we are faced with difficult moral dilemmas, it provides a tool we can all use. It protects our rights and shows how we have a responsibility to protect the rights of others.

Gender is everywhere

Gender is an issue that can be included in any lesson and in any subject: the female is often ‘hidden’ – be it symbolically or literally. We are a country led (predominantly) by men, and many textbooks seem comfortable with terms such as ‘mankind’. When a story uses the ‘male’ as shorthand for ‘universal’, I point this out to my class in the hopes that they will one day see this for themselves.

An extension of this would be to make gender a part of as many tests, discussions, debates and assignments as possible. There is the obvious danger of eliciting eye-rolls from your class (“Oh, ma’am, not gender again!”), but with some creativity, you’ll be surprised how everything has an eyeopening rather than eye-rolling ‘gender angle’ to it.

The teacher as role model

The teacher is the best tool we have in the education of our youth. Be it in staff meetings or in moderating a debate in my classroom, I do not apologise for my existence. I am clear in my opinions and I do not shy away from expressing them. Traditionally, outspoken women are labelled as ‘aggressive’ or ‘unnatural’, but this need not be the case. While inside I might be quivering and unsure and feel remarkably fat in ‘this dress’, I will not show this to my class. I teach beautiful girls and if I need to pretend to feel beautiful so that they can see their own beauty, so be it. I am a great believer in the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ principle!

‘Engender’ leadership

If possible, get the entire staff involved. One of the easiest campaigns to run in your school is the #BanBossy campaign.2 The resources are available free of charge on the website and can be adapted to any age group and any setting. The #BanBossy campaign focuses on encouraging and developing girls’ leadership across all ages. Use the campaign as an opportunity to put girls in leadership positions and show others (and themselves) that they can lead, and lead well.

While explaining the rationale for our #BanBossy campaign to a group of my Grade 12 learners, I mentioned that once a girl is in middle school, studies suggest she is less likely to want to lead than her male peers.3 One of the young men then asked me if that was because we live in a “patriarchy”. I could have leapt for joy. Here was a young man who had created that gap between his identity and his ideas, who had taken on board larger abstract concepts of how societies are organised, and who was applying this knowledge to what he saw around him. Thus, in our classrooms, we can move towards that ideal society outlined in our Constitution, step by step.

References:
1. See, for example: http://www.justice.gov.za/legislation/constitution/constitution.htm.
2. See: http://banbossy.com/.
3. See, for example: Eccles, J.S. (1999) “The development of children ages 6 to 14”. Available at: https://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/publications/docs/09_02_02.pdf.

 

 

Category: Spring 2014

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