Exploring Women's Learning about Gender Diversity in a Religiously Conservative State in America

Article excerpt

Abstract: The purpose of this study was for two female, doctoral students residing in the State of Utah to explore their experiences of learning in a gender diversity class. The women used self study to explore their learning juxtaposed against their experiences of living and working in a state heavily influenced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a conservative Christian Church. Common themes emerged for both women but were complicated by positionality: one woman was born and raised in Utah and is a practicing Mormon, the other woman is transplanted to Utah and considers herself spiritual but not at all religious. Dual themes of "pushing against from within" and "pushing against from without" are explored as both women come to a greater understanding of hidden oppression, judgment, and their roles as women in a patriarchal culture.

Introduction

I now realize that my perspectives were simplistic and egocentric, and that people are not as one-dimensional as I wanted to make them. I still believe that many structures in this state1 are hegemonic and misogynistic, but I underestimated the rich and complex interiors that each person brings to bear in their relationship to this environment. These understandings evolved as a direct result of my participation in the summer gender diversity class. (Journal entry)

Gender Diversity Studies

The study of gender at colleges and universities has historically been addressed in women's studies programs, but may also be embedded in more general education requirements under the term diversity. While the term diversity broadly considers issues of race, class, and culture; gender diversity focuses on sexuality, the historical evolution of gender constructs, gender identity, and the socio-cultural power structures that perpetuate constructed gender views. Barata, Hunjan, and Leggatt's (2005) research of women's experiences in graduate school suggests that the study of gender can provide a safe place for the creation of feminist identity, the negotiation of new gender roles, the valuing and devaluing of all things feminine, and the construction of authentic interfaces with the masculine world. The consideration and possible alteration of personal identify and beliefs may be facilitated in gender study courses which embody critical feminist pedagogy.

Critical feminist pedagogy is a combination of feminist pedagogy, which seeks to validate and understand the roles of women, coupled with critical theory, which foregrounds the power structures that oppress and marginalize women. Through critical analysis and exposure to diverse perspectives, critical feminist pedagogy aims to make students aware of their socially constructed world and to transform their views of power and oppression. To better understand how gender studies can be transformative when delivered via critical feminist pedagogies, a brief review of the literature on transformational learning and critical feminist pedagogy is presented.

Literature Review

Transformational Learning

The ability to openly discuss difficult or new topics and to critically reflect on thinking comprises two fundamental aspects of the transformational learning process (Merriam, 2004). Learning that promotes ambiguity and a plurality of views may be transformative because it affects a change in one's frames of reference. Frames of reference are accumulated understandings and belief structures that are comprised of associations, concepts, values, feelings, and conditioned responses. These frames of reference define our life worlds and selectively "shape and delimit our expectations, perceptions, cognitions and feelings" (Mezirow, 1997, p. 5). A narrow shaping and delimiting of perception and cognition is particularly troublesome in a world that is becoming increasingly diverse, positional, and complex.

Mezirow (1997) established learning processes aimed at transforming frames of reference. The first process is to identify and elaborate a point of view. …