Feminism has become a dirty word.
In discussions with students, this is what I hear: “Sure, I think women should get paid the same as men, but it’s not like I’m a feminist.” “Feminists want to make everyone the same, but everyone knows men can’t breastfeed.” “Feminists think women are better than men— that’s the problem.” These summations are offered with a blend of confidence, scorn, and ignorance, while the word at their center, “feminist,” is spoken with that special brand of dismissiveness that comes so naturally to adolescents.
As a high school teacher, I have the opportunity to discuss all sorts of “ism’s.” Ample opportunities arise for discussions that are ideological, political, cultural, theological, socio-political, socio-theologico-political—it all finds a moment in our discourse. And in my fifteen years of facilitating such discussions, my students have proven to possess a remarkable degree of tolerance to dissenting positions, and admirable openness to having their own points of view examined by their peers. By and large, the students I have taught are well able to leave their cynicism at the door of the classroom, and engage in healthy, self-reflective, and honest discussions. Their sensitivity time after time exceeds my own.
With one exception: feminism. Often, their negativity is shaped by the very legitimate and positive changes that have occurred in the last few decades. They chide me: “Mr. Fleischer, feminism was once really important, but there’s nothing left to fight for.” So we do the work. We take the time to list feminist concerns in detail, examining the world stage, the domestic sphere, even our own religious community. In checklist fashion, we get down to brass tacks: do women make the same as men for doing the same job? Are women treated with justice or even sensitivity in the legal and political arenas? Have our assumptions about family life shifted in response to contemporary notions of equality? And even as it becomes clear that at least some of them share many of the ideological concerns of the feminist movement, still they balk: “But that doesn’t make me a feminist.”
The issues are fine. But the word? That’s another matter.
Faced with this cognitive dissonance, I lose my teacherly perspective. Out the window go any ambitions of withholding my point of view. I find myself insisting, “Of course you’re a feminist!” while my students respond, “No, I’m not!” Part of me believes that as long as they’re thinking about the issues, the rhetoric is moot. Let them call themselves whatever they want. They still live lives of feminist empowerment, lives rich with the possibilities provided for them by the feminist movement. I chide myself: so what if they’re stuck on the word?
But there are, I think, serious values at stake in the language of feminism, values of particular concern to educators, values that turn on the very question of what we choose to call ourselves.
First of all, as a Modern Orthodox Jewish educator, I believe in the importance of hakarat hatov, of recognizing the sacrifices others have made on our behalf. Certainly, hakarat hatov is a key aspect of the relationship we build with God, as well as with our own history. Acknowledging past debts, like those we owe to generations of feminists, both women and men, has a religious component to it. The discomfort with the language of feminism that too often emerges in my community is not only historically myopic and shallow, but also insensitive. While many of us have tried to balance the changes generated by the feminist movement against the counterweight of our tradition, the lives we lead and the communities in which we pursue God’s will have yet been deeply informed by them. Allowing others to blithely dismiss the word “feminist” is an ethical and religious failure. The word matters because in using the word we engage in hakarat hatov. Simply put, it’s a mitzvah.
Secondly, like all movements, feminism is concerned with the limitations of the status quo and the need for change. The lifeblood of movements concerned with change is the language with which they describe themselves. More importantly, proponents of change are driven by passionate self-awareness; they declare themselves into being. They identify themselves and in doing so promote the change they are looking to effect. That is, in using the language of feminism we promote the cause.
As a teacher, I have a fine line to walk. On the one hand, I teach not only facts and figures but values. Ours is a mission driven profession, a tikkun olam profession. To leave my values at the door of my classroom is to betray its purpose. On the other hand, my students bring their own identifications, world views, and sensitivities to our class. Our classroom needs to be a place in which they can examine who they are and consider who they want to become. To offer my own point of view in too heavy-handed a fashion is also to betray the purpose of the classroom.
When it comes to my own feminism, it has been hard for me to find this balance. I want to push my students to examine their discomfort with feminism, but in order to do so they need to feel comfortable expressing their discomfort and confident that they will be allowed to find their own point of view. I want to direct their attention to the cognitive dissonance they experience in response to the word “feminist;” I want them to acknowledge their debt and to work toward change. But I also want them to feel safe enough to disagree with me, in part because I need to teach them what respectful disagreement looks like.
So sometimes I bite my tongue, and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I argue: “Look at the issues! Of course you’re a feminist!” And sometimes I leave the word unexamined. Like all dirty words, it has power even when misused. Like all dirty words, sometimes the more you draw attention to it, the dirtier it gets.
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