Zelophehad’s Daughters

Searching for Honesty and Wholeness in Teaching Women’s Studies

Posted by Seraphine

I’ve been a teaching assistant for an introductory Women’s Studies class the past few semesters. Last semester I had a rewarding and thought-provoking experience (I’ve actually had many, but I’m going to talk about one in particular) with one of my sections. We were talking one week about art and activism and the ways in which women have used art to represent their lives and make feminist statements. I think the reading prompted the students to consider how to negotiate feminism in their own lives because one student expressed frustration with translating the ideas from class into her lived experience. She was trying to deal with friends dismissing her by saying things like “Oh, there she goes again with her feminist complaints about patriarchy,” and she wanted to know what to say in these situations; basically, she wanted to know how to communicate the ideas she learned in class and have people actually listen. We talked in class some about that frustration, and ended up bringing the conversation back to the art we were discussing–how the women artists used humor, creativity, and personal experiences to reach their audience (rather than just angry ranting).

Then one of my students asked me about my own experiences with feminism and Women’s Studies. In a website we looked at, the woman artist expressed how her initial enthusiasm for Women’s Studies had waned at a particular point in her life because she found herself only having conversations about feminism with other feminists, and my wanted to know if I had had a similar experience. I think my student was also asking me was whether or not I got tired and frustrated after years of being a feminist and multiple semesters of teaching Women’s Studies, and whether or not these things dragged me down and made me lose my enthusiasm for feminism and Women’s Studies.

I told my students that actually the opposite was the case–that my enthusiasm for the subjects I teach my students has actually grown, that I came from a background where feminism was looked at with suspicion, and that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained more confidence in and enthusiasm for my feminist beliefs. I didn’t go into a lot of detail because my classes are student discussion and not instructor-centered, but afterwards I reflected more on the students question; I thought about how I negotiate feminist theory in my own life, especially in regards to the church (which is the place I encounter the most non-feminists).

In high school and at the beginning of college, I was a person who believed the stereotypes about feminists and had no desire to take a Women’s Studies class. I didn’t want to hear about how my desire to get married and be a mother was wrong (little did I know that I probably wouldn’t have heard this). My first encounter with feminist theory was in an introduction to critical theory class, but I didn’t really spend much time thinking about it because it was mostly about feminism and film (all that stuff about the “male gaze”), and it wasn’t directly applicable to my life. When I got to my Postmodernism class the next semester, however, I encountered my first article about the history of the Women’s Movement, and its complex portrayal of the debates and tensions within feminist circles strongly affected me on both an intellectual and emotional level. I found myself simultaneously agreeing with and resisting things that seemed to directly contradict what I believed.

Obviously, my identification with feminism grew (a story I’m not going to detail now), but I still find myself negotiating tensions between my conflicting beliefs, both at church and in the classes I teach. I have to deal with a certain amount of compartmentalization, and I tend to not share my complete story with people in both arenas. At church, I don’t introduce myself as a feminist, I don’t try to convert other women to feminism, and I don’t do feminist critiques of issues such as how church culture and discourse has their own problematic version of women’s appearance being connected to their power. I do sometimes share my feelings in more personal settings, but I’m often scared to say something even then. While I want to be honest, I don’t want to deal with the aftermath, as a tension-filled Visiting Teaching experience earlier this afternoon reaffirmed. On the other hand, in my Women’s Studies classes, I don’t share with my students my turbulent and conflicted thoughts on the subject of abortion, and in our unit on women’s sexuality and our discussions of heterosexism, I don’t tell my students that I’m still a virgin and that my church teaches that homosexuality is a sin. I think that honesty about one’s own experiences can be powerful teaching moments, but it’s difficult for me to use my own experiences as teaching moments when I often can’t make sense of them myself.

Despite this compartmentalization and my inclinations towards silence, I find myself increasingly trying to find ways to share my honest thoughts and integrate these two disparate parts of my life. I was brave enough in a Relief Society lesson I was teaching on the Priesthood to explain how my focus on the Priesthood as the power of God (and my avoidance of any gender-related discussions) was because of my own emotional discomfort with the issue. I find that feminism and Women’s Studies has increasingly helped me make sense of my questions about the church’s teachings on gender–something I always possessed but didn’t have a language for. My understanding of women as divine individuals has strengthened my belief in the goals of feminism that are about women realizing their potential, desires, and goals (something that is at the heart of feminism).

What I find the most rewarding and where I find the most wholeness, however, is in teaching Women’s Studies. I see my own experience reflected in my students grappling with ideas they find liberating, challenging, and sometimes threatening. I tell my students stories about my life that I can make sense of. I find joy as these students come to class, trying to make sense of their lives, and leave with alternate and positive ways of thinking about issues that are often very painful for them (violence against women, eating disorders and body image, etc). When students tell me stories about how their friends react negatively to what they’ve learned, I’m sad, but I’m also excited that this class not only increases their knowledge, but also directly translates into their everyday lived experience. When I reflect back on my answer to my student’s question last semester, I wish I had been better able to articulate that despite the many struggles I’ve had integrating feminism into my life, I don’t get frustrated with feminism or Women’s Studies because of her and the rest of my students.

6 Responses to “Searching for Honesty and Wholeness in Teaching Women’s Studies”

  1. 1.

    This is a wonderful essay, S. Thanks.

  2. 2.

    Thanks, Elisabeth.

  3. 3.

    I’ve thought a lot about that question you raise of how to communicate feminist ideas in a way that people can hear. I really like what you said about artists who use “humor, creativity, and personal experiences to reach their audience (rather than just angry ranting).” One of the perceptions of feminists which I frequently encounter is that they have no sense of humor and take themselves far too seriously. (“How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? That’s not funny!“) And I have to admit that I’ve met some feminists whom I would place in that category (though I hardly see it as a problem unique to feminism; I’ve also met a number of Mormons who seem to take themselves quite seriously. ;)

    My experience with bringing up feminist concerns in a church context is that even if people aren’t as dismissive as a home teacher I had at BYU who told me that it was “petty” to be bothered by such issues, it’s rare that I feel heard. I think that’s where I get the most frustrated— it’s not that people disagree with me (I certainly don’t expect everyone to think the same way I do); it’s that I don’t feel like there is even space for me to have the views and feelings that I do. The responses I’ve appreciated the most have been along the lines of, “I can see why that could be a hard issue for someone.” But the more common response goes something like “if you truly understood the gospel and your role as a woman, you wouldn’t have such concerns,” often followed by an attempt to talk me out of them (sometimes with arguments that simply confuse me, such as “but President Hinckley is so sweet to his wife.”) I don’t know if this is entirely fair, but I have to admit that I tend to interpret such a response as the other person reassuring herself, quelling her own possible anxieties. It seems like the trick is to find a way to talk about the issue that doesn’t leave people feeling threatened or defensive. But with such an emotionally loaded topic, that’s awfully hard to do sometimes.

  4. 4.

    I completely agree with you, Lynnette. Even if people disagree with me, if I feel heard, it doesn’t bother me. I think my tendency is to only raise my concerns with people with whom I have an established relationship and with whom I communicate well. This doesn’t solve the kinds of issues you and others raised in the VT thread, though–what do you say in situations where you less than comfortable, you don’t agree with what’s being said, and you are expected or asked to make a comment? It is sometimes next to impossible finding a way to be honest while keeping things tension-free.

  5. 5.

    I find that my problem in sharing feminist ideals is a lack of an audience. My husband, and friends are people who share my ideals. My parents are too far gone for me to share these things and still have a good relationship with them.

    It gets really frustrating because I feel so passionate, and angry about times where I let things slide and shouldn’t have. I want to chew someone out for what my old boyfriends said to me about how I look.

    So, between being surrounded by people that agree with me, and being enraged by memories of past injustices, I thouroughly sympathize with having difficutly in finding constructive ways to express feminist ideals.

  6. 6.

    Starfoxy, while it’s nice that others can empathize, I’m sorry that you’re frustrated as well. I too struggle with not letting my frustration and anger emerge when talking to others about feminism–people have enough of a difficult time already hearing what I have to say that if I’m also angry, it makes it that much more difficult.

    I am glad to hear that you have some people around you who agree with you–I find that for me, that helps diffuse some of the frustration.

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