Category Archives: Feminism

A Step Forward

Even at 12 or 13, many of my students are already thinking ahead to the kinds of careers they plan to have – enough, in fact, that I sometimes have to comfort and reassure those who aren’t that they are perfectly normal and have years and years to work it out. Driving back from the Dakin Animal Shelter where we volunteer just before vacation, two of my students began talking about what it would be like to spend their lives working with animals. Along with discussions about which specific aspects of a veterinarian’s job would be more or less difficult and why, they acknowledged that at root, it would be a profession where people who love animals get the chance to help them.

Sometimes, too, some of my students will start talking about what it will be like when they get married and have families. At such moments, in an effort to be inclusive, I’ll try to acknowledge the existence of different genders and sexualities, different ideas of marriage and life partnerships, different perspectives on having children. Those points made, the themes of whether and how to share one’s life with someone else, and what makes for good parents, make for great discussions.

I know that most if not all my students identify with feminist values of equality whether or not they might specifically identify as feminist, and – along with them – I often wonder how they will fare as they move forward from our girl-positive environment into the big, wide, not-quite-so-female-positive world. I know the research matches the experience of our alumnae that they are better positioned for success in a number of ways, and I take comfort in that knowledge. But still, I love my students and want the best for them, and so… I worry.

A recent article by J. Maureen Henderson in Forbes, “Will Millennials Be Trapped By Gender Roles?” illuminates the question through recent research from Harvard Business School. It turns out that millennials are indeed far more aware and inclusive of a wide range of genders than past generations, and value both work and family regardless of gender. However, it turns out that gender-based differences arise when millennials apply their generally progressive views to their own lives. Men were more likely than women to expect their careers would take precedence over their spouse’s (the study appears to have focused on heterosexual men and women), and that is the reality that prevailed. As Ms. Henderson put it, “Young women expect that their progressive values will be reflected in their own lives, while young men are much more likely to anticipate a more traditional pairing.”

I can start including information from this article when my students have those inevitable discussions about work and family. And I can guide them through the discussions that ensue, as inclusively and respectfully as possible. What do they want? What might their partners (those who seek marriage or other lifelong partnerships) want? How might they go about using their voices, listening, and helping craft a compromise if need be? And of course, some of the work we do on friendships and conflict can extend to these situations as well.

But it can’t fall entirely to girls’ schools to deal with this situation. That would just be furthering a patriarchal vision of society. Boys schools, too, need to address this reality, and of course coed schools as well. And schools can’t do it alone.

We in the U.S. like to think that anyone can accomplish anything they set out to. And our culture has done some foundational work to prepare to move in the direction of that ideal (to whatever extent it might in fact ever be achievable). The essential next step is to look honestly at how well we are enabling that ideal and begin systematically removing roadblocks. Patriarchy, and its effects on the diversity of genders and sexualities. Systemic racism. Classism. Ableism. It’s a long road we need to travel. All the more reason to ensure every day represents a step forward.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, In the Classroom, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

“This Very Interesting Article on Buzzfeed”

“I have found this very interesting article on Buzzfeed that I thought you may be interested in.” McKim, one of my former students, now a junior, was writing ten faculty members to share a link to “Austin Thinks It Can Save Poor Kids By Separating Boys And Girls” by Katie J. M. Baker. After summarizing what it was about, she went on to write, “At one point in the article, an organization states that ‘Single-sex schools are illegal.’ Which sounds preposterous. On the other hand, the all boys section of this school district is teaching the boys to always walk behind a lady during formal events because she is wearing heels, and if she falls a boy should be there to catch her. Although, at the same time the all girls school is teaching the girls to use their voice and not be afraid to be leaders.” I finished her email and clicked on the link, quickly glancing through the piece and then writing her back: “Thanks, McKim! I skimmed the article and will come back to it in more detail soon. There are a lot of layers to it, and I want to look deeply at it and see how they handle all the complicated intersections of race and gender and class as they pertain to education. It seems fascinating.”

The schools, Gus Garcia Young Men’s Leadership Academy and Bertha Sadler Means Young Women’s Leadership Academy, do indeed appear to include a fascinating mix of best practices that occasionally succumb to unfortunate stereotyping, all underscored with good intentions, exactly as McKim had told us. And there is no question that the learning environment is much improved from the dreadful schools that preceded these. “Dozens of students said they were happy with the switch. (…) ‘Last year, the teachers didn’t care about us,’ said an eighth-grader named Daryl. “They just cared about their paycheck.’” (Baker) And a former district Trustee, Cheryl Bradley, was definitely on the right track when she affirmed: “It’s not about boys learning this way and girls learning this way. What we did is we change the learning environment. Because it just wasn’t working the way it was. We cannot continue to do the same thing and fail at it and not try to do something new to be successful.” (quoted in Baker)

Yet practices such as the advice to boys that McKim cited, or advice given by one of the so-called experts that “teachers should allow girls to take their shoes off to decrease stress.” (Baker), suggest that the schools do not always reach in practice the ideals that they set. This applies to educating children of colour as well, as “Officials at the schools, composed of 97.4% and 94.1% Latino and black schoolchildren, respectively, learned that black boys in particular are more likely to be ‘aggressive’ and ‘not as neat.’” (Baker) And when we read that “Girls read on cozy couches in the library and bounce on green exercise balls during math class,” (Baker) it’s hard not to wonder, “But wouldn’t that work for boys too?”

Of course, single-gender public schools aren’t illegal per se, merely some of the policies they might carry out. According to Ms. Baker, “the Department of Education issued new clarifying guidelines for K–12 schools. Those that choose to offer single-sex classes must be clear about their goals (“improving academic achievement” counts), ensure that enrollment is completely voluntary, and conduct periodic evaluations every two years, among other mandates. Clearest of all: Schools must “avoid relying on gender stereotypes.” The ACLU built on that theme, stating that “generalizations about boys’ and girls’ interests and learning styles cannot be used to justify the use of different teaching methods for male and female students.” (quoted in Baker)

In presenting research, the article mentions, among others, a study undertaken by Dr. Janet Hyde at the University of Wisconsin, a 2011 article in Science magazine, and work by both Dr. Lise Eliot and Dr. Leonard Sax. These were all familiar to me, and I wrote McKim about some of my concerns, asking rhetorically why the landmark 2009 study led by Dr. Linda Sax which affirmed several positive effects of girls education is not more often mentioned. Among my earlier blog entries, “Why [a rigid binary view of] Gender Matters,” and “Sleeves Rolled Up” summarize my feelings well, and “Making History” was my immediate (if indirect) response to the Science article.

“‘What’s happening in the public school system looks nothing like single-sex education at private schools and colleges,’ said Galen Sherwin, senior staff attorney at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.” (Baker) While that might be an overgeneralization, I know that what I see going on around me in this school bears little resemblance to descriptions of what is happening in some of the public schools against which the ACLU has brought lawsuits. I might continually examine what we are doing, as we all should – but in the end, that leads to an ever-stronger commitment to our mission. As I once wrote, “So – what does it mean to teach girls today? I told my friend that at this point in time, I no longer “teach girls” but rather teach the unique and individual students I have in front of me. But I do so in a girl-positive environment created within a school whose mission is built on feminist ideals.” (“Why I Support the ACLU’s Suit Against Single-Sex Schools”)

McKim concluded, “As a student at a single-sex school I found this article very interesting because I was able to see how some organizations viewed public single sex schools, what they thought the guidelines on how it should work was, and how this school district in Texas organized their schools.” I would agree, and add that the article reconfirmed for me how important it is to keep an open mind, listen, consider all perspectives, and ultimately recognize that there probably is no one single model of education that’s right for every single student.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, On Education, The Girls School Advantage, Uncategorized

Trans 101.5

Transgender Awareness Month comes right on the heels of National Bullying Prevention Month, and in many ways that makes sense, as transgender people are disproportionately affected by bullying (as with street violence). GLSEN reports that fully 82% of LGBT kids have had problems with bullying, 44% specifically due to gender identification (reported on the nobullying.com website). GLSEN’s 2013 National Climate survey is available by download for anyone who might be interested.

In an age where definitions of different genders are becoming as fluid as some people’s sense of gender itself, it can be hard to keep up with the latest terms. For starters, (biological) sex is not the same as (social) gender, and 1-2% of people are born neither female nor male but rather intersex. Additionally, even though “transgender” refers to someone whose gender identity differs from that assigned to them at birth, not everyone who might fit that definition automatically chooses to identify as transgender. Moreover, though some transgender people (such as noted teen activist Jazz Jennings, here in an interview with Katie Couric) feel they were always girls trapped in a boy’s body or boys trapped in a girl’s body, not all transgender people feel that way or even identify within the gender binary. Partially blurring the binary are bigender people and androgynes, and within the Native American tradition, two-spirit people. But other transgender people might identify as polygender, agender, genderqueer, or just plain nonbinary, and still others avoid terminology altogether. Some may have a stable gender identity while others might be more fluid. Facebook, as many people know by now, offers a menu of over 50 gender choices, and even then, it is not 100% comprehensive.

Currently, among the most common pronoun choices used by trangender people are he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/theirs, and ze/hir/hirs. As with gender itself, though, there are a wealth of pronoun choices that exist. The only way to know what pronouns a transgender person uses is for them to tell you. It’s certainly okay to politely ask; many colleges routinely do so now during Orientation and in the day-to-day of their offices.

Because of the acronym “LGBT,” people often assume trans people are not heterosexual, but your gender actually has nothing to do with your sexuality. Transgender people can be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual, polysexual, asexual (both romantic and aromantic), and any other variety of sexuality of which you can think.

In a recent talk at Mount Holyoke on her life as a trans woman, Jennifer Finney Boylan told listeners, “Let your story be known. It’s impossible to hate anyone whose story you know.” Ms. Boylan walks the talk, having published a number of beautifully written and at times painfully honest books on her life including the iconic She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders and the sequels I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir and Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders. For people looking for books for younger readers, Luna by Julie Anne Peters is the fictional story of a transgender teen told from the point of view of her younger sister, and I am Jazz, written by Jazz Jennings along with Jessica Herthel and based on Jazz’s own life, is the story of a transgender girl written for elementary-age children. As transgender people are becoming more visible, so too are choices of good books about transgender people becoming more common.

Though I don’t personally identify as transgender, I do have a vague sense of what it might be like. My own gender expression, as I’ve written before, is essentially a projection of my authentic self, kept as free of gender typing as possible, into a heavily gendered world. In that world, some people see me and greet me with warm and genuine smiles. Others laugh out loud, cringe with discomfort, or look me over with disgust. Still others simply treat me as they would any other person. The result is that I sometimes feel both relaxed and on guard. Relaxed, because I’m comfortable both with the look and with the effect of shaking up gender norms. On guard, because I never know when things might suddenly and without warning turn ugly.

Those emotions should be incompatible.

Patriarchy is why they aren’t.

So in the end, as with so much in this world, it all comes down to respect. Respecting each other’s personal sense of our own gender identity and the associated gender expression we choose. Respecting the terminology we each choose to use. Respecting the possibility of good intentions behind the occasional slip-up. And ultimately, respecting our joint and fundamental humanity.

No matter what gender we might be.

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, The Faculty Perspective

Why I Came, Why I Stay

The other day at Open House, one of the attendees, a public school teacher, asked each of us present on a faculty panel to talk about how we ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham, and why we stay. Our stories were as individual as we are. My own begins the summer I was getting married…

It was the summer of 2004, and my fiancée and I had just graduated from the M.A.T. program in the French and Italian Department of the University of Massachusetts. Each of us had completed all the requirements for Massachusetts State certification except for the French proficiency exam. My fiancée called up to find out details, and was told that there was a non-refundable fee of $75 and it would be given on one of three possible Saturdays in August, one of which was to be our wedding day. The exact date, she was told, would not be given out until no more than three weeks ahead of time, “for security reasons.” We were about to spend a year living in France anyway, so we elected not to register for the exam. That meant, when it came time to apply for teaching positions, we had no choice but to apply at independent schools. And that’s how I ended up at Stoneleigh-Burnham.

As for why I stay, I gave two reasons. One is that I identify as a gender activist rooted in feminist ideals, and working in a girls school feeds that part of my life. A second is that we know what research and experience tells us works well for kids, and ironic as it may be given that many of the best teaching models were originally developing in and for public schools, at this point in our nation’s history, independent schools are actually freer to apply those models than many public schools. I may deplore that situation, but that makes it no less true.

The person who asked the question quietly mouthed a “thank you” to me, and we moved on to hear Miriam’s story as she was sitting to my immediate left.

Essentially, of course, I was saying that I stay in teaching and I stay at Stoneleigh-Burnham because I believe deeply that what we do matters. I’m acutely aware that not everyone can say that about their job. Just one more thing for which I am grateful this November.

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Filed under Admissions, Feminism, Gender, On Education, The Faculty Perspective

Making Feminism Cool

“Bra-burning. Man-hating. Angry and unattractive. Such stereotypes have shadowed the women’s movement over the past few decades — and a slew of young, fashionable celebs are working to clarify feminism’s true definition.” (Fairchild) Setting aside for another day the question of why such a stereotype may have come to life and remained, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, so persistent, Caroline Fairchild raises a good question in her article “Will young celebrities make feminism ‘cool’?” Besides noting Emma Watson’s epic speech at the UN launching the “He for She” campaign, Ms. Fairchild mentions Taylor Swift’s recent realization that she has been a feminist all along and Beyoncé’s performance at the VMAs backed by the word “feminist” in huge block letters.

Feminism, many analysts note, has been waging an uphill battle for years to define itself as being in general far more inclusive than it is typically portrayed. I’ve certainly seen many students over my three decades here echo Ms. Swift’s sentiment when she said, “As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.” (Swift, quoted in Thomas)

Certainly, many of my students admire Emma Watson (both for who she is and for having played feminist icon Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” movies), and certainly students in rock groups down through the years have proposed Taylor Swift songs. But more and more every year, my students have also been raised with a healthy skepticism for the media. I wonder to what extent that will limit the effect that these, in effect, celebrity endorsements will have on them – granting, too, that I want them to be individual, critical, free-thinkers in the first place. Time will tell on that point. But if Ms. Watson’s speech, Ms. Swift’s declaration, Beyoncé’s performance, and other such examples of celebrities embracing feminism can lead to further conversations, that’s a great place to start.

Themes of equality, equity, and justice will of necessity run through those conversations. Statistically, equality is of course the easiest to measure: when females and males each make up approximately 49% of any profession where size and physical strength do not matter (intersex people making up the remaining 1-2%), when people of all genders receive the same pay for the same job (assuming the same experience), and so on, we will have statistical equality. Whether that’s achievable without working explicitly for equity (fair not necessarily being equal) is another question. And given historical oppressions, working toward equity must go hand in hand with working for justice (see Rutgers Professor Brittney Cooper’s outstanding article in Salon for a thought-provoking examination of this). Through that lens, it’s easy to see that not just diversity of genders but also diversity of race, sexuality, class, age, abledness, and more come into play, along with the continuums of support and oppression, privilege and marginalization that come with each of those axes of diversity.

In short, as I wrote the other night during a Twitter chat, we have to fight relentless hierarchies (and associated binaries).

All are welcome.


n.b. Thanks to Jane Mellow, Director of our Learning Center, for introducing me to the “Crafty Girls” font, which adds an extra layer of fun to drafting blogs on feminism!

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, Women in media