Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Feminist Teacher of Literature: Feminist or Teacher?

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

The Feminist Teacher of Literature: Feminist or Teacher?

Article excerpt

This essay approached the question of how feminism might work together with scholarship to increase the knowledge base--a departure for me, who usually stuck to knowledge--and I was thrilled when PLL agreed to publish it.

--Nina Baym

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Emerita


The new women's movement has revealed to us how thoroughly our social arrangements and our inner lives are pervaded by gender inequities that we have been taught to think of as "natural." As a social and political movement with practical goals, feminism necessarily emphasizes the destructive results of such gender teachings on those humans who are biologically female. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in the originary text of the new feminist movement, The Second Sex, "one is not born a woman, but becomes one."

In attempting to redress the injustices that follow from, and depend on, acceptance of gender inequity, feminists have developed two different, not always compatible, practical goals. One is to revalue such traditionally denigrated female attributes as compassion, empathy, nurturance; the other is to remove the barriers that have kept women from the sources of power, property, and pleasure in our culture. (1) Neither aim directly ad dresses the fate of men. But feminists usually assume that in a society that values the "female" qualities while giving biological females access to the full range of human choices available in the culture, life will be better for all.

To move from the large social and political goals of the women's movement to the protected artifice of the literature classroom is to narrow one's aims dramatically. But there is no ground to till except what we stand on; only by learning to apply feminist principles in particular instances does one make change occur. Feminist teachers have invented a variety of women-centered courses for undergraduate and graduate students over the last fifteen years. Some of these courses consider works written by both men and women, others works by women only. Feminist teachers have also attempted to open mainstream classes to feminist insights.

In her teaching the feminist generally sets herself one of two tasks: she calls attention to "new" texts--that is, texts not traditionally taught--and she develops "new readings" of old texts, readings that make visible their gender markings. (2) In work by women authors, the teacher usually looks for the signs of a specific female writing presence--sometimes called the "signature"--which may be revealed directly through accounts of gender-specific experience, or more problematically through particular stylistic habits. (3) The feminist teacher may interpret such habits as learned strategies, or as the natural expression of the female; and she may take them to represent the woman writer's resistance to, or her unwitting revelation of, patriarchal pressures. (4)

In considering work by a male author, the feminist teacher often tries to show how it complacently accepts or vigorously defends the biased social structure that gives dominance to males and devalues women. The various strategies of devaluation become the primary focus of her teaching. From this perspective, the male-authored text (and by extension the male author himself) is of feminist interest only in relation to women (and, until recently, only the strikingly, almost parodically misogynist texts were considered useful for such purposes).

Nevertheless, for academic feminists--those who study women within various disciplinary practices and who come together under the rubric of "women's studies"--to consider gender in relation to biologically sexed men is both logical and, for some projects, necessary. To discuss gender as though it pertained to women only is inadvertently to replicate the dangerous cultural fiction that men are not gendered, that they are the disembodied mentality of the human while women are irrevocably embodied in their biological sex: as Beauvoir put it, men equal the transcendent, women the immanent. …

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