Feminar 101: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

If you are a teacher, you might recognize the following scenario. It’s the beginning of the academic term, and you’re pulling together syllabi, texts, and notes for your first class meetings. You check your email and find a few messages from new students giving you information they consider crucial. Sometimes it’s the names they go by. I am not talking about nicknames or using middle instead of first names or just the initials of first and middle birth names. These students most decidedly do not want to be deadnamed in class—and that new term signals the importance of this issue to them. Rather, these students have taken up new names reflective of their ongoing self-fashioning, and it is these names they need you to acknowledge and use. Such announcements typically contain in the signature line the student’s preference in pronoun use (masculine, feminine, plural, or newly invented forms such as xe, xem, and xyrs). Now imagine remembering the individual pronoun preferences of a class of, say, thirty students. Of course, the ready solution to constant confusion and possible offense is to learn every student’s name (of choice) and to use it instead of any pronouns beyond “you” (which to me always sounds a bit rude). Less easy to know how to handle are other personal markers students also share in emails: “I am trans*” or “I am nonbinary” or “I am a cis-gender male.” What is each declaration trying to say? What is one supposed to do with this information? Why or how does this matter, one asks oneself, in a course on American realist and naturalist literature?

It matters, of course, because these announcements mandate critical attention to issues of gender—how our understanding of gender as individual lived experience is changing at the same time that socially mandated gender expectations remain highly problematic. While some of us applaud the recent emergence of various movements against sexual harassment and violence as well as gender inequality in the workplace, the exposure of constant, quotidian micro- and macro-aggressions against women occurring at all levels of society and broadcast widely via social media shocks us and indicates both how far we have come and how little progress we have made in promoting equal rights and respect for all. The issues of who determines what gender means, whether women have the right to self-determination, and why only certain sexualities are considered “natural” in our society matter, then, in every class and class setting.

Let me suggest two short, pithy, and pointed manifestos that help us by providing resources on the issues of gender and women’s equality. Manifestos by definition are strongly felt, often overtly angry pronouncements of sociopolitical (and sometimes politico-aesthetic) standpoints. Both of the books I will briefly discuss are gently angry in the sense, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie insists, that “we should all be angry” (21). A modified version of her 2012 TEDxEuston talk, We Should All Be Feminists is a quick read at fifty-two pages. In short, Adichie argues that “gender as it functions today is a grave injustice” (21), and she then strategically points out how gender expectations are detrimental to boys as well as girls and, therefore, that issues of gender concern all of us. While this seems commonsense to Adichie, she makes clear how alien such a view is to many of her acquaintances, and women readers will recognize the negative stereotypical descriptors of feminism thrown at her by both men and women in response to her declarations: that she is humorless, she is man-hating, and she’s unhappy precisely because she doesn’t have a man, so she’s taking it out on everyone else. More insidious are comments that accuse her of denying her African heritage, for feminism, those opponents say, is not of the national culture; it is a strictly Western and white phenomenon, and, therefore, not only is she betraying Igbo culture but she is also a race traitor. Interestingly, many of Adichie’s examples of sexist micro-aggressions are drawn from the experience of her American friends, leading this reader to question whether a sizable number of Americans likewise consider feminism—the belief in equal rights for women—to be not of our culture.

Mary Beard’s somewhat longer Women & Power: A Manifesto, a slightly revised version of two talks she gave in 2014 and 2017, explains, in part, why so many people think that feminism is both unnational and unnatural. The first lecture, entitled “The Public Voice of Women,” offers “a long view” of the roots of Western misogyny in the silencing of women evident from the earliest Greek and Roman writings and mythmaking onwards (8).  She opens with Telemachus’ dismissal of his mother Penelope, his sending her back to her private quarters since, he declares, public “speech will be the business of men” (4). Indeed, as Beard goes on to illustrate through citation of numerous sources (including Aristophanes, Ovid, and Aristotle) early Western civilizations decisively established the cultural template for who is allowed to speak with authority and under what conditions. While for men “public speech was a—if not the—defining attribute of maleness,” women were allowed, according to historical records as well as literary artifacts, public voice only as victims of male violence of an exceptional nature or if speaking for strictly sectional interests—for home, for the sake of children, in defense of husbands (17). Public speech, then, identified the voice of authority, and despite extraordinary advances in the rights of women to take part in public discourse and decision making since ancient times, Beard argues, “our mental, cultural template for a powerful person remains resolutely male” (53). In the second lecture entitled “Women in Power,” she demonstrates this cultural assumption by pointing to the characters of Medea, Clytemnestra, Antigone, and the Amazons, all created by men as “abusers rather than users of power” (59). Her central case is that of Medusa, the woman vilified and demonized forever as the uncanny usurper of power who must be destroyed, and Beard underscores her assertions about the ongoing silencing of women by including contemporary illustrations from the popular press of Theresa May, Angela Merkel, and Hillary Clinton depicted as Medusa defeated, decapitated. The answer to such violent silencing, Beard believes, does not lie in the resituating of women “on the inside of power” (79), however, but rather on the careful reconsideration of how we define power itself—specifically, our need at this moment to think about “power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession” of an elite few or as a means toward social prestige or celebrity (87). We must effect idiomatic along with ideological revolution.

To return to my opening: those few students sending self-declarations are, whether they fully realize it or not, changing the cultural template Beard reveals as so pernicious and unsalvageable. They are in a most direct fashion illustrating that the personal is political by announcing the new and complicated ways in which we must now address issues of women, gender, and sexuality. If we don’t fully understand the reasons why or the terms now in use, then we need to educate ourselves. These works by Adichie and Beard are there to give us a head start.

By Mary E. Papke
Professor of English
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. NY: Anchor, 2014.
See also her Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. NY: Anchor, 2017.
Beard, Mary. Women & Power: A Manifesto. NY: Liveright, 2017.

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One Response to Feminar 101: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

  1. Fiona Tolhurst says:

    It is so important that all faculty members understand the identity issues present in today’s classroom. This year I had a student who was transitioning, and I found that the question I ask of every student on the first day of class enabled me to respond to this situation well: Is there a name you go by that is not on my official roster?

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