Teaching Feminism

By Evangelia Kindinger

Pho­to cred­it: Eri­ka Wit­tlieb (cre­ative commons)

All teach­ers remem­ber moments when they were caught off guard in front of a group of stu­dents. I remem­ber a few years ago, in a class about male authors’ take on wom­an­hood in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, I com­ment­ed on Hen­ry James’s novel­la Daisy Miller, say­ing some­thing along the lines of: “As a fem­i­nist, I object to some of the images James cre­ates of women, why is he using those images? What do you think?” There were mur­murs in the group, and I looked into skep­ti­cal faces: “Ms. Kindinger, are you a fem­i­nist?” I real­ized I had said some­thing that changed my stu­dents’ image of me. I was con­fused. Had they nev­er noticed my fem­i­nism from the way I teach and the texts I choose? Appar­ent­ly not.

This year I chose to teach a class called “Fem­i­nism and Pop­u­lar Cul­ture,” respond­ing to feminism’s (for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume it’s a uni­fied move­ment) increas­ing vis­i­bil­i­ty in the media, espe­cial­ly in pop­u­lar cul­ture and social media. I includ­ed texts, such as Buffy the Vam­pire Slay­er, Brides­maids, Tan­ger­ine, Mas­ter of None, writ­ings by bell hooks, J. Jack Hal­ber­stam, and Rox­ane Gay as well as Sarai Walker’s won­der­ful nov­el, Diet­land. In the very first ses­sion, my group filled out a brief ques­tion­naire in which I asked whether they iden­ti­fied as fem­i­nists, what they knew about fem­i­nism, and who their fem­i­nist icons were. Only one of 30 stu­dents said they did not con­sid­er them­selves a fem­i­nist. Every­one else claimed “fem­i­nism” as part of their iden­ti­ty, female and male stu­dents alike. I felt this was a very com­fort­able start­ing point for our dis­cus­sions of sec­ond wave fem­i­nism as well as post- and third wave feminism.

I start­ed off with one of my favorite def­i­n­i­tions of fem­i­nism by Caitlin Moran. In How to Be a Woman (2011), she asks her read­ers to put down their hands in their pants: “a) Do you have a vagi­na? And b) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then con­grat­u­la­tions! You’re a fem­i­nist.” Next, I showed them the def­i­n­i­tion Bar­bara Smith offered at the 1979 Nation­al Women’s Stud­ies Asso­ci­a­tion: “Fem­i­nism is the polit­i­cal the­o­ry and prac­tice that strug­gles to free all women: women of col­or, work­ing-class women, poor women, dis­abled women, Jew­ish women, les­bians, old women as well as – white eco­nom­i­cal­ly priv­i­leged het­ero­sex­u­al women. Any­thing less than this vision of total free­dom is not fem­i­nism, but mere­ly female self-aggran­dize­ment.” I had expec­ta­tions, of course, expec­ta­tions met when some stu­dents com­ment­ed on the bio­log­i­cal essen­tial­ism of Moran’s def­i­n­i­tion and both definitions’trans-exclusiveness. What I did not expect was both male and female stu­dents crit­i­ciz­ing Moran and Smith for not includ­ing men. There it was. I was  caught off guard and became very self-con­scious: What do I think about men in fem­i­nism? What stance do I, as a fem­i­nist, take towards the male stu­dents who chose this class?

Of all the con­tro­ver­sies I expect­ed when dis­cussing fem­i­nism – abor­tion; so-called trans-exclu­sive rad­i­cal fem­i­nists; and sex-pos­i­tive, even “sexy” fem­i­nism – I had not antic­i­pat­ed male fem­i­nism to be the tough­est issue to grap­ple with. Nat­u­ral­ly, I had includ­ed a ses­sion on male fem­i­nism; I asked my group to read Stephen Heath’s essay “Male Fem­i­nism” (1987) and watch the high­ly rec­om­mend­able episode “Ladies & Gen­tle­men” from the Mas­ter of None TV series. How­ev­er, this assign­ment took place much too late in the syl­labus in one of the final weeks. Yet every week before, I looked at my male stu­dents and won­dered what they thought when we spoke of fem­i­nism and patri­archy. What they, all white men, thought when I asked them to read from Sara Ahmed’s new book Liv­ing a Fem­i­nist Life in which she decides to not “cite any white men.” Yes, it would force them to check their male and white priv­i­lege; it would also make them under­stand that patri­archy is a sys­tem of oppres­sion that has a vari­ety of accom­plices, both male and female.

Still, I had to check my own pol­i­tics because every ses­sion I felt like I want­ed to make my male stu­dents feel com­fort­able and appre­ci­at­ed while I assumed my female stu­dents were com­fort­able any­way. I had to force myself to make rad­i­cal state­ments, to stand for the fem­i­nist pol­i­tics I believe in, to argue for fem­i­nism as a space and move­ment in which women are the pro­tag­o­nists with men on the side­lines: relat­ed to fem­i­nism, depen­dent on fem­i­nism, but not the ini­tia­tors, the doers. Why did I fear my male stu­dents would feel left behind? I have to admit it’s not because I strive to be a great teacher who man­ages to inspire and involve all her stu­dents. Rather, it has to do with me as a woman in a world that teach­es us to val­ue men more than women, to seek their approval, to make them feel good. Although my stu­dents did not expect this from me, I real­ized that I felt the urge to do so. After a few weeks in which we all got to know each oth­er, I men­tioned my strug­gle in front of every­one, asked my male stu­dents where they see them­selves in fem­i­nism, and whether they felt the dis­com­fort I assumed they did. Their answers were man­i­fold; the feed­back I received from the whole group was appre­ci­a­tion for admit­ting to hav­ing issues with my own fem­i­nism, of still strug­gling. Although I have always believed in open­ing up myself to my stu­dents to a cer­tain extent, I’m sure that when one’s pol­i­tics enter the class­room (as they should!), you can­not keep a dis­tance, you need to jump in and accept even the most uncom­fort­able real­iza­tions about your own self. And then: admit, dis­cuss, and change.

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Evan­gelia Kindinger is Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor for Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Ruhr-Uni­ver­sität Bochum. Her aca­d­e­m­ic inter­ests include: pop­u­lar cul­ture (espe­cial­ly film and tele­vi­sion), 19th cen­tu­ry women’s writ­ing, Fat Stud­ies, Gen­der Stud­ies, and the study of the Amer­i­can South. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on her sec­ond book, a study of the sig­nif­i­cance of the red­neck stereo­type in Amer­i­can culture.