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How to mindfully teach feminism in your classroom

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Quizlet is proud to partner with teachers to showcase authentic voices on our blog. This guest post is by Jenn Jeffers.

Paying attention to the ways gender-based discrimination and oppression have affected women of different races, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and so on, creates a larger opening for hesitant or distrustful students to enter safely and find their place.

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One size does not fit all—not in clothes, not in ideas, and certainly not in a study as complex as feminism. This notion of diversity, in both body and mind, is at the heart of intersectional feminism, a method of query and analysis that seeks to recognize the condition of all women, not just those at the forefront of privileged society. While this idea may seem obvious to some, the reality is, feminism as a thought discipline isn’t as broad and embracing as you might think. In fact, it can be downright exclusive.

That’s because the traditional, mainstream method of teaching feminism in the classroom and beyond fails to encompass the disparate multicultural demographics of women. Students who don’t fit the classic mold, who don’t identify with the “definitive” experience of womanhood, often feel alienated and excluded. These educational approaches were designed to achieve the opposite, but they are failing.

As educators, we thrive on such challenges. And as scholars of what works and doesn’t work in a learning environment, we strive to establish effective methods of teaching unwieldly and highly-charged topics like intersectional feminism. It’s why we’re here.

Move Past Words

The biggest hurdle of intersectional feminism is simply getting past the phrase itself, and into the thoughts, feelings and experiences of the students you hope to reach.
According to spiritual teacher and writer Eckhart Tolle, “Words are only signposts.” Not only should we avoid clinging to them, but we must ultimately leave them behind if we hope to reach our destination. Feminism is a deep pool of human variation. Don’t get too hung up on the word “intersectionality,” as it will only drag you (and your students) down. The word itself is not important. What matters is the concept: an acknowledgment of the inherent differences of the female experience.

Once your students can move past the word and understand the value of intersectionality as an equalizer, delving into the topic of feminism grows easier. And for students, it becomes more accessible. Paying attention to the ways gender-based discrimination and oppression have affected women of different races, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and so on, creates a larger opening for hesitant or distrustful students to enter safely and find their place. The conversation instantly becomes more inclusive, flexible and accepting.

Accept One, Accept All

Historically, feminism has been about group rights and the advocacy of female equality. This approach is problematic because multiculturalism is regularly overlooked in the name of female unity and overarching equality. Teachers looking to inform students on the tenets of intersectional feminism do better by focusing on group autonomy, a form of multiculturalism that concentrates more on justice between groups rather than justice for all. This approach offers space within the study of feminism for varying backgrounds and experiences while also making it known that all women are part of the feminist movement, not just those with the loudest, most privileged voices.

Students of feminism all have intersecting identities that situate them uniquely within society and the existing power structure. In practice, teaching intersectionality as it pertains to feminism is about seeing women as complex human individuals living in different, interlocking systems of oppression. Simply put, it acknowledges and embraces the need to include all women’s voices. But teachers should not forget, an intersectional approach to feminism must also recognize that some categories of identity, such as gender or sexual-orientation, can’t be abandoned in favor of others, like race or class. In this way, balance is key to effective pedagogy.

Do Not Fear Dissent

You might be wondering why anyone would quarrel with such a strategy. After all, isn’t attention to individualism essential in all types of learning? Yes. However, it’s worth noting, some people worry that pushing intersectionality within feminism spreads the discipline too thin to be useful. In other words, if we focus too much on what separates women, how can we recognize, celebrate, and teach the critical need for solidarity? But in truth, focusing only on the common ground between women is what erases outlying identities in the first place. There is no way to come together if you are not first invited into the sphere.

Regardless of how well you handle this dynamic in the classroom, discussions of intersectional feminism sometimes, at no fault of our own, fall into dissent. Emotions run high in these forums, where women of all backgrounds feel emboldened to speak their “truth” without concern for how it may sound—or how it may affect others. Just as it can be difficult for nonwhite women to find their voice in a narrative that typically ignores them, it can be equally as challenging for white women to share feelings that may be perceived as privileged or ignorant to the realities of female inequality. There is no right answer. There are only compassion, understanding and the power of present listening. Making and holding space within your classroom for students to work out the kinks of their personal belonging is what defines the art of teaching with integrity, especially when it comes to something as multifarious as feminism.

While teaching intersectional feminism, some students may inadvertently lapse into victimhood. To make matters worse, an intersectional approach to feminism can sometimes give the illusion that this victimhood is being measured, categorized, tallied and ranked. There is the potential for reactionary in-fighting. As the educator, your willingness to hear and appreciate each story while also pushing for larger inclusion will be critical. This is not always easy, but it is important. Regardless of whose marginalization feels bigger or worse or more detrimental, the fact remains that women must band together, across all elements of separation, if they want to pursue feminist unity. It will be your job to drive this point home for all students.

When teaching feminism for everybody, consider using lesson plans like this one from “Diversity Is.” This type of lesson honors and celebrates the diverse perspectives of women while also educating them on how gender intersects with other identities. May it serve as a useful blueprint for future lessons and a general source of educational inspiration.

Teach What Matters

At the end of the day, teaching intersectional feminism matters because it allows you to engage on the deeper levels where education often fails to go. It gives you an opportunity to open up conversations that many say has been holding feminism back. Share this with your students. Bring them behind the scenes and let them know their feelings are valid, despite their origin. People are going to get upset. People might have their feelings hurt or inadvertently hurt someone else’s. This is just part of the hard work, part of the learning. And when things get really tough, you can remind students that they are part of an ongoing journey toward better equity among and for women in the world. Their struggles are a natural, necessary part of the trek.

Poverty, racism, sexism, classism—these are not new problems. Teaching with an intersectional lens on feminism means recognizing what came before. Generations of women throughout time have suffered and championed to reach this point, right here and now. Bring students onboard by giving them an overview of this history, thereby situating them and their experiences within a larger timeline and legacy of struggle. This is where the true inclusion lies—in the ability to see what unites rather than divides us.

When formulating curriculum for this type of learning, it’s often helpful to provide a proper overview of feminism’s deep historical significance. Consider Clio History online. This approach introduces the students to the basic premises of feminism, and examines its historical definitions and their impact on democracy, politics, and social justice.

These conversations will naturally lead to deeper ones about the state of society and the larger world. Standing in solidarity with other women and questioning the dominant male paradigm builds a path towards critical thinking about feminism. It builds a future of inclusion in which no woman is left behind. One could say intersectional teaching on the subject is what will eventually allow us to move away from it altogether.

Keep an Eye on Togetherness

Understanding the systems and cultural models that continually stand in the way of female progress will empower students to face their own experiences while also keeping an eye on the need for togetherness. Let them know that building better, stronger, and more resilient thinking around the subject will, in turn, create better conditions in the future.

Once you recognize the inherent usefulness of intersectionality in feminist teaching, you may also find it applies well to many other subjects. When students can glimpse the power of intersectional thinking in their own lives, and see how their own unique set of values and experiences contribute to this pool of thought, they move ever-closer to the realm of critical thinking. And it is here, in this sphere of curious consciousness, that real learning—about life, themselves and the deeply meaningful study of feminism—can occur.

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