- Teaching Women with a Y-Chromosome:Do Men Make Better Feminists?
In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks is both welcoming and suspicious of those who would teach from a position that recognizes the limitations of personal experience. Teaching from experience, as we know, can lead to a difficult and defensive essentialism that relegates students and teachers alike to categories and "types," and, as hooks argues, can obscure real cultural understanding of privilege and oppression, neither of which respects clear-cut boundaries of skin color or gender. If only a black woman professor can teach black feminism and racism, if only Jews can write about Jewish suffering, categories such as "black," "feminist," "racist," and "Jewish" cannot help but assume a monolithic hegemony that places an undue burden and an undue power on the teacher in the classroom. Since no black feminist could possibly speak for all black feminists, since no Jew can speak for all Jews, the aspiration to move away from teaching-one's-experience would reject "conventional oppressive hierarchies," and would represent for hooks a step in the right direction—a step toward pedagogical tolerance and diversity first made possible by the work of feminist critics, activists, and teachers (77–78).
At the same time, however, hooks is disappointed that such an aspiration has so far only "dashed the hopes" of women of color. According to hooks, critics who are normally carefully attuned to the dangers of identity politics and the oppressive power of labels and categorization have nonetheless used this knowledge to mask their own prejudices. They "fail to interrogate the location from which they speak, often assuming, as it is now fashionable to do, that there is no need to question whether the perspective from which they write is informed by racist and sexist thinking" (Teaching 77–78). To some degree, then, the desire to deconstruct the limits of identity politics—that is, to teach that terms such as black and white, Jew and non-Jew, gay and straight, feminist and sexist are not as antagonistic or exclusionary as we might first presume—has made it possible for critics in a position of privilege to speak for the oppressed without realizing that they are denying the marginalized the opportunity to speak for themselves. [End Page 145]
As a straight white man, an Anglo professor of French, and the only male at my university to teach WGST 106: Introduction to Women's Studies, I am acutely aware of the paradox hooks highlights for those of us who teach what we haven't experienced. On the one hand, teaching the cultural oppression of women from a male perspective, even as it counteracts the dangers of essentialism, seemingly re-inscribes, rather than rejects, conventional sexist hierarchies, and unmistakably substitutes a man's voice and ideas for those of someone who has lived through the very oppression under consideration. On the other hand, as a pro-feminist man, I always already offer something atypical to my women's studies students; my mere presence at the front of the classroom cannot help but invite them to reevaluate their preconceptions of feminism and its adherents, to consider new gender possibilities, and to experience a kind of pedagogical diversity that hooks would, in theory, applaud. The opportunity to confront that paradox, however, is often precisely what attracts male professors to the women's studies classroom. In the essay that follows, I underscore the challenges hooks's paradox presented during my first semester in WGST 106, a semester that necessitated an intricate pedagogical balancing act on my part as I attempted, from a position of masculine privilege, to teach female students to reject "conventional oppressive hierarchies."
Before I continue, allow me to clear up a couple of things about the double-edged title of this essay, "Teaching Women with a Y-Chromosome: Do Men Make Better Feminists?" First, the Y-chromosome I'll be talking about is mine; it does not belong to the women I was teaching, for that would typically—although, as Stacey Waite reminds us, not necessarily—make them men (116). This essay is about pedagogy rather than biology. Indeed, it addresses what critics like hooks might consider pedagogically...