Consciousness Raising 101: Inside the Gender Studies Classroom. (Columns)

By Young, Cathy | Reason, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Consciousness Raising 101: Inside the Gender Studies Classroom. (Columns)


Young, Cathy, Reason


FOR THE SECOND year in a row, I have had the fascinating experience of playing a role in which I never expected to find myself: professor of a gender studies course.

In 2001 David Hendrickson, then chairman of the political science department at Colorado College, contacted me about teaching a short course. Colorado College, a small, selective liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, has a unique system in which a semester is divided into four "blocks." Each student takes one five-days-a-week, three-and-a-half-week course at a time. The system allows the school to make liberal use of visiting professors.

Given a chance to design my own course, "Beyond the Gender Wars," I decided to offer a survey of different approaches to contemporary gender issues, with a focus on challenges to orthodox feminism offered by writers such as Christina Hoff Sommers (Who Stole Feminism?), Warren Farrell (The Myth of Male Power), and Katie Roiphe (The Morning After) . I fully expected the experience to be educational for me as well as my students, and I wasn't disappointed.

It is something of a truism that while young women today reject the "feminist" label, they embrace the feminist principles of equal opportunity and flexible gender roles. Both my classes--the first comprising six women, the second nine men and six women--bore this out. Only one student in the first class, and three in the second (one man and two women), had previously taken any courses studying feminism. Most had paid little or no attention to gender issues; they had so little knowledge of the women's movement that the phrase consciousness raising did not ring a bell with anyone. Most were turned off by feminism's radical image.

Yet these young people were not only over-whelmingly supportive of broad "equality feminist" goals but strikingly predisposed to believe various claims of inequities toward women in modern-day America. Thus, it was universally taken for granted--at least when the topic was first brought up--that the gap between male and female earnings was due to discrimination against women and amounted to proof that sexism was alive and well.

Our readings and discussions, however, had some effect: Late in the course, when we got around to reading Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards' "Third Wave feminist" book Manifesta, which espouses "pay equity" as a key item on the feminist agenda, many students questioned without prompting the authors' use of statistics on unequal pay.

For most students, the "myth-debunking" critique of orthodox feminism--the exposes of bogus and manipulated facts and statistics--proved powerful and eye-opening. One of my most amusing moments came this year, after I assigned four readings for the discussion of domestic violence: two representative feminist pieces purporting to document a domestic violence epidemic caused by sexism and tacitly abetted by society, and two critiques explaining the dubious origin of such claims as "battering is the leading cause of injury to American women." One student lamented that he had read the pieces "in the wrong order"--the "dissidents" first. "By the time I read the last two," he said, "I kept going, 'That's a lie!'" Interestingly, he and a few others said that our readings about ideologically motivated statistical shenanigans had left them with a healthy skepticism of all statistical and factual claims, by feminists, anti-feminists, or anyone else.

The women, including those most inclined to identify with feminist views, were perhaps most receptive to the argument that treating women as perpetual victims becomes a self-fulfilling, infantilizing prophecy. Thus, Roiphe's scathing indictment of "rape crisis feminism," with its dogma that women are imperiled by male brutes at every turn and that verbal pressure is just as bad as physical violence, was largely well-received, even if some students felt that Roiphe was too dismissive of the problem of real acquaintance rape. …

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