We Are (Not) Feminists: Feminism in the Classroom

Thank you to Dr Astrid Bracke from the University of Amsterdam, Radboud University, Nijmegen, and HAN University of Applied Sciences for writing this guest post in the ‘We Are Feminists’ blog series. Here she reflects on the challenges of teaching feminism, and recounts her experience using the ‘We Are Feminists’ video in class.

Though she found their reaction surprising, Astrid’s students offer an astute analysis of the problematic ‘sameness’ of the original ‘We Are Feminists’ montage video: all contributors are white, middle class, University educated and University employed. Astrid’s students pose an interesting and valid question: would the video be different if filmed elsewhere and if its contributors were from different backgrounds?

The answer is, of course, ‘yes’. And it is important to recognise and give voice to the multiplicity of perspectives and experiences of women across the globe and from all walks of life. As the archive of ‘We Are Feminists’ videos continues to grow, we hope to add to this chorus of voices. It is a difficult but essential project, and one also addressed by Janine Bradbury in her inspiring account of black feminism.

Another significant moment in the account below is Astrid’s pause to reconsider her own views on feminism and women’s lifestyle choices. And this is another important facet of teaching feminism in the classroom; it presents a challenge to student and teacher alike.

— Amber Regis

When I told my first years’ we’d be discussing feminism that day, they sighed, and fell silent. They’re never silent. Sensing their hostility, I asked them to just tell me the first things that popped into their minds when I said ‘feminism’.

fotoAstrid

Dr Astrid Bracke

I wrote them on the board: “whiney”, “angry”, “necessary when women didn’t have the vote, but no longer”, “men and women are equal now anyway”. One of them chipped in, “Feminists don’t want equality, they want to be treated better than men”.

The week before this class, the Dutch minister for emancipation had expressed her concerns about the fact that 48% of Dutch women are financially dependent. This brought feminism back into the spotlight in the country following fierce debates a few years ago about the supposed ‘laziness’ of Dutch women: a huge percentage of Dutch women work part-time – often two or three days a week – leading some columnists to claim that Dutch women didn’t want to work more hours.

My class saw no reason for why women should want or need financial independence. In fact, the group – consisting mainly of female students – shared conservative views on the role of women. Without exception all of them envisioned a future with a husband and children, and all of them expected to stay home at least until their children went to primary school. All of them agreed that women are much more suited to taking care of children, and that pursuing a career is something typically masculine – since men are more ‘ruthless’ – and women are naturally more ‘caring’ and ‘emotional’.

Then I showed them the ‘We Are Feminists’ video in which John Miller talks precisely about this belief in ‘natural’ gender roles. I’d really enjoyed the video and was curious to hear how my students would respond to it.

It was not what I’d expected. Not only were they not at all convinced, they disagreed with every point I made that seemed (to me) to prove that male-female relations and representations are culturally constructed.

The Netherlands prides itself on being very emancipated – indeed, the possibility of working part-time in nearly all professions is something that enables many women to work who otherwise could not. Compared to other countries, many Dutch women are in employment – they just don’t work long hours to support themselves independently. Even so, I wasn’t wholly surprised by my students’ opinions – I’d heard other groups say negative things about feminism – but I was very struck by their conservativeness and their own views of the future. These are young women studying to become teachers and they see themselves giving up their jobs and financial independence, easily and willingly, in the years to come.

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Woman and child on a bicycle with sidecar
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Photograph: Giorgio Tomassetti (CC)

At the same time, I also had to confront my own views: although I whole-heartedly believe that feminism is about making a choice, including the choice to stay at home with your children, I simply could not understand why women do this. Frankly, I often catch myself thinking this is not only financially unwise, but also bad for your personal development and even your relationship.

And yet, one point made by a student after watching “We Are Feminists” stuck with me in particular. She pointed out the social, economic and geographical context of this video, and that the contributors are all University lecturers, people with a certain education, and view of life. As another student argued, this video would have been very different if they’d taped it in a factory, and asked factory workers whether they were feminists or not. And that, I think, is an area where feminism has a lot to gain.

All too often feminism seems to be about women who have the time to worry about equal rights because they do not have to worry about finding enough money for tonight’s dinner, let alone birthday presents, etc. My students’ responses also emphasise the importance of presenting diverse views of feminism and a variety of roles for women. And, although I was different at their age, their relative youth also matters. At 18 or 19 years old the last thing many of them want is to stand out or be different – whether it’s about the latest mobile phone or fashion trend, or expressing political views.

So, part of me hopes that they’ll grow and mature to make genuine, smart choices in life based not solely on traditional gender roles. And when they do, I hope that I am mature enough to realise and feel that feminism is also about the freedom to make another choice: to stay at home.

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