A Movement to Bring Feminism to High School Classrooms
Each fall, Ileana Jiménez teaches an elective on feminism at Elisabeth Irwin High School, a private school in Manhattan. Her students read classic and contemporary feminist theory written by women of color, listen to guest speakers such as Jasmine Burnett, who spoke to the students about womanism, and learn how to take action on issues they care about.
With Jiménez’s help and guidance, many of her students have spoken at UN events, testified before the New York City Council, and appeared on CNN segments. They have also organized clothing drives and fundraisers to support GEMS, a nonprofit that helps girls and young women recover from commercial sexual exploitation.
The class is transformational for students. “Before taking my high school feminism class, I never thought twice about issues regarding women and their rights. I never noticed the rampant presence of inequality towards women,” wrote a student in a post for the class blog F to the Third Power. “However, now that I’m in a high school class on feminism, whether it is in the media or in my own family, I’ve noticed a lot of attitudes that ignorantly and unintentionally oppress women.”
Jiménez has her own blog, Feminist Teacher, which has facilitated connections with other teachers who want to bring feminism to their classrooms. Because the number of teachers reaching out to her has been growing, this Saturday she is hosting a Back to School Feminism Symposium for Teachers in New York City, thanks to a grant from Soapbox Inc., which hosts Feminist Camps; produces curricular tools, books and films; and helps connect campuses and community to feminist speakers. The free event will provide an opportunity for teachers to learn how to bring a feminist, intersectional, social justice lens and content to the classroom.
This is not the first time Jiménez has organized such an event. In 2013, she approached the American Association of University Women (AAUW) about co-hosting a similar convening. They agreed, and the day-long symposium on teaching gender was held at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, later that year.
The 2013 convening about teaching gender was groundbreaking for being the first gathering of high school educators who are currently teaching or who want to teach gender. But the idea of offering these classes at the secondary school level is not new. At the college level, the first accredited women’s studies course was established in 1969 at Cornell University, and it was only three years later that Wayne Memorial High School near Detroit became one of the first high schools—if not the first—to offer a women’s studies elective.
Now-retired teacher Patricia Sanders helped start the course and taught it at least one semester for more than 25 years. She gave students assignments such as interviewing their grandmothers about their lives, writing essays on gender roles and expectations, and reading biographies about women. Her course was so popular that some years, teachers taught up to six sections to meet the demand.
Today, it is unknown exactly how many schools offer this type of course, but there are at least a few dozen nationwide. In St. Louis, a small but enthusiastic group of 50 educators and activists from across the country—from California to Massachusetts—met. Now, two years later, more than 80 teachers are registered for the New York City convening.
At the St. Louis gathering, educators from both public and private schools discussed how to teach gender, not only in feminist or women’s studies classes, but also by incorporating it into history, English, and sex education courses. Panelists reflected on the various benefits of these courses, such as the reduction in sexual harassment at school—an effect that presenter and former Michigan high school women’s studies teacher Dr. Jennifer Martin discovered during her PhD dissertation research. Panelist Dr. Annie Delgado, a teacher in California, originally proposed her class to school administrators as a way to help reduce the high rate of teen pregnancies in her school. Symposium attendee Laura Massa said she created a women’s studies course in Florida to help the many students she saw struggling to build positive interpersonal relationships.
Panelists and attendees shared recommendations for how to design and implement individual units and courses, including what readings and approaches had worked best. Several attendees recommended utilizing social media to connect with authors and activists they are studying in class and to invite guests to speak with them over Skype. Through Skype, Delgado has had guest speakers including Gloria Steinem and high school football coach Natalie Randolph. Another suggestion was making the content relevant to students’ lives. Panelist Dr. Stephanie Troutman, for example, said that her students react well to media-focused projects, such as using a gender lens to analyze the music and movies they consume.
Whether they were at a private or public institution, the teachers all agreed that having the support of the administration was crucial. Other tips included showing how the course connects to a school’s mission and highlighting how it can improve conditions by helping to address sexual harassment, racism, sexism, and teen pregnancy. Barb Easley, the Social Studies Coordinator for the Hazelwood School District in Missouri, said creating a way for students to receive Advance Placement credit through the University of Missouri, St. Louis, helped her institute a women’s studies course district-wide.
The feedback from the symposium was overwhelmingly positive. “When I attended the symposium I was in my second month teaching an elective course on feminism,” said attendee Massa. “I was by myself trying to do something that I knew was necessary and valuable for my students. As soon as I got into the room and saw other women doing the same I felt truly invigorated.”
Delgado said her participation “assisted me in developing contacts and highlighted for my district that we need to continue to make things happen.” As a result, this year, not only is she teaching two women’s studies classes to 115 students at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater, but her district approved her to teach two women’s studies classes at an alternative education high school. One of the male students said her class made him “a better man. My mom said I’m a better son. I’ve walked away with so much.” All of her classes enthusiastically participate in her student-driven campaign to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.
Today, these teachers are diving into a fresh school year and have a new group of students to expose to feminism. And with this Saturday’s symposium, Jiménez is preparing to help more than 80 teachers learn how to bring feminism to the classroom. She told me she is excited that the event had passed capacity, noting that “Feminism in schools allows for innovative solutions to the problems we are facing every day. That's pretty exciting work, and now we’re seeing it become a movement.”