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  • Practicing What We Teach: FeministStrategies for Teaching about Sexism
  • Martha Copp (bio) and Sherryl Kleinman (bio)

What we do in the classroom is our politics. No matter what we may say about Third World this or feminist that, our actions and our interactions with our students week in week out prove what we are for and what we are against in the long run. There is no substitute for practice.

(Tompkins 660)

For decades, feminist teachers have been working in a chilly political climate.1 Right-wing critics claim that women's studies programs suffer from "insularity and narrowness, ideological bias, and a tendency toward misinformation" (Vickers 9; see also Hoff Sommers; Patai and Koertge). In the mainstream media, feminism is both vilified and trivialized.2 It's no wonder that many students doubt that sexism exists. Some believe that the problem isn't sexism, but feminists—especially feminist teachers—who make a big deal out of what "little" gender inequality there is.

In our classes, we present feminism as a "sociologically mindful" practice (see Schwalbe). People who engage in sociological mindfulness conceive of human beings as interdependent; examine the social basis and consequences of people's beliefs, behaviors, and interactions; recognize the socially constructed nature of patterns of inequality; and act in ways that reduce social harm. This approach embraces the feminist tenet that the personal is political: because people can exercise agency in the face of social constraints, feminist awareness can help us make changes in our lives and in the world.

We accept Marilyn Frye's position that sexism is "a common (but not homogeneous) oppression" (Frye, "Willful" 70). Sexism operates systematically against women of all races, classes, and sexualities, but it is also shaped by these other inequalities. As feminist teachers, we seek to expose the all-too-common "paths of least resistance" (Johnson 32) that people follow, unintentionally reproducing intersecting inequalities. We analyze and challenge the legitimacy of old habits and encourage students to find new ways to interrupt business as usual.

In our courses we find that students are more willing to accept the reality of racism, heterosexism, and class inequality than sexism.3 Students believe that "women and men are equally hurt by 'gender roles,' in effect denying the reality of gender inequality" (Kleinman, Copp, and Sandstrom 127). This popular false parallel equates the costs of sexism to men (as a group) with the systematic oppression of women (as a group) (see Johnson 167–71; Schwalbe 212–17). Although we read and [End Page 101] talk about the negative consequences of sexism for men, particularly in relation to health (see Sabo), we show that these costs are tied to men's privileges as members of the dominant group.4 We also find that our female students resist hearing about sex inequality almost as much as our male students do (Moore; Titus; Turkel). Sexism, as bell hooks has pointed out, is the sole form of oppression in which the oppressed are expected to love their oppressors. Consequently, sexism becomes masked and normalized in ways that racism (for instance) does not. Our straight white female students, in particular, know that if they were to acknowledge sexism, they would have a lot to lose (dates, a current or future boyfriend, or a husband).

Both of us share the privileges of being straight, white, and middle-class. But as female professors, we face students who are "less likely to attribute the educational credentials actually achieved by a woman to a woman. . . . 'Professor' is a status that, for many students, is reserved for the male classroom instructor" (Miller and Chamberlin 295; see also Duncan and Stasio). As female professors who teach about sexism, we may be seen as self-interested or as troublemakers determined to "convert" students.

And, as feminist female teachers who use teaching methods that involve informal relationships with students, we run the risk of not being taken seriously. Female instructors of all races/ethnicities and men of color who practice feminist pedagogies share "the unenviable position of having to demonstrate their . . . intelligence [and competence] while trying to encourage students to learn from one another" (Bridges and Hartmann 76). Feminist instructors find student-centered teaching...


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