"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Thursday, June 17, 2010

College Undergrads and the Future of Feminist Activism

So, I finished up school last week and now possess an MA in Women's Studies. In the two years I spent in my program, I taught Women's Studies 101 six times, which means I had the unique experience of getting to teach about 175 Midwestern undergraduate students some basic feminism.

Here are some observations about my students that shed some light on where they stand in relation to feminism. Don't take these as generalizations, as there were exceptions in every class. They're more like trends I noticed over the last couple of years about today's college undergrads who take Women's Studies. I also don't want some of the more pessimistic-sounding observations to come off as complaints. The vast majority of my students were learning about a feminist viewpoint for the first time, and some resistance to the ways in which it challenges what they have believed for most of their lives is totally natural. However, I think an understanding of where most students are when they first start thinking about these things can be illuminating:

  • They get outraged that their high school history classes never taught them who Alice Paul was or what women had to go through to get the right to vote.
  • They are highly invested in individual merit and personal responsibility and tend to ignore systemic causes and solutions to injustice and inequality.
  • They are quick to dismiss still-highly-relevant feminist theory written 10, 20, and 30 years ago on the grounds that "things have changed since then".
  • When they learn about the ERA, they show outrage that it never passed -- until they realize that it possibly could have meant requiring women to register for the draft.
  • When they read bell hooks' "Rethinking the Nature of Work", they shy away from engaging with her critique of capitalism and instead embrace her claim that women should stop devaluing housework.
  • They remain highly invested in male chivalry and often refuse to examine the power relations underlying the practice, arguing that it's important for men to be "gentlemen".
  • Despite being able to fully articulate the problems with blaming victims for rape and sexual assault, they still maintain that women should "know better" than to dress like whores and flirt with guys at bars.
  • They recognize the sexism in breast cancer awareness marketing that objectifies women, yet excuse it as long as the campaigns are making money that goes to a good cause.
  • They respond most positively to feminist arguments that don't single out men as the cause of women's oppression, and they seem eager to give equal attention to disadvantages experienced by men in our society.
  • After reading and hearing the words "people of color" and "women of color" in my class, some of them end up using the words "colored people" and "colored women" in their writing.
  • They often mix up the words "valorize" and "vilify" -- sometimes to hilarious effect.
  • They are quick to argue that gay, lesbian, and transgender folks deserve equal rights, but they rarely notice or point out when arguments are heterosexist.
  • When asked to list women they admire, many of them name Oprah Winfrey and Sarah Palin, but most of them name their mothers first.
  • They maintain, despite evidence that our bodies are constituted and shaped by the social, that women are naturally physically weaker than men.
  • With the exception of one "LOL" in two years, they don't write in text-speak, but they do tend toward a highly informal, conversational tone in their writing.
Has anyone who's taught before seen similar things or had a different experience? Does any of this surprise you? How do you think these trends affect the future of feminist activism?

7 comments:

harrietsdaughter said...

Tracey -
I teach race and gender studies and the "people of color - colored people" thing comes up so often that I am going to start talking about it on the first day of class because it makes me so crazy. This past term I had a white male student assure me the book we were reading talked about "colored people" (after he used the term in class) so I asked him to point it out to me. After a few minutes of searching he gave up but he was still "sure" it was in there. (I'm African American)

I recognize a number of the other dynamics you point out as well.

Tracey said...

Thanks for commenting, harrietsdaughter. This is is one of the ones that really bothers me, but I'm also just so fascinated by it and can't help but wonder what the mental process is that causes it.

When I read their writing, I get the idea that many of them are trying very hard to vary the language they use as much as possible to avoid repeating terms over and over, but they also don't understand that the terms they use to call groups of people are political.

I should have also said something about how fond they are of the term "homosexuals".

Rosesred said...

Interesting post and very close to my own experience. Love your specific examples, and think it would be fun to put them up at the start of next semester, and tell students; this is how it's going to be.

I've taught philosophy to undergrads, and many of them seem to have a really hard time to see that not only the world can be different than they experience it,but also that other people really, honestly have experiences different from their own, that are really worth listening to.

Rosesred said...

Interesting post and very close to my own experience. Love your specific examples, and think it would be fun to put them up at the start of next semester, and tell students; this is how it's going to be.

I've taught philosophy to undergrads, and many of them seem to have a really hard time to see that not only the world can be different than they experience it,but also that other people really, honestly have experiences different from their own, that are really worth listening to.

Bachelor Girl said...

First of all, congratulations!!

Second, this was really fascinating. Encouraging in some ways but discouraging in others.

Unapologetically Mundane said...

I'm interested in this: despite evidence that our bodies are constituted and shaped by the social.

What do you mean? Women could attain the same levels of physical strength as men if society didn't tell us to knit instead of play sports? Or something else?

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