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  • Theories of Gender Hierarchy for an Introductory Women's Studies Class
  • Nancy W. Jabbra (bio)


Issues of gender hierarchy are central in an introductory women's studies class.1 My own approach to teaching feminist theory is informed largely by my interests in public policy and my background in social anthropology. I wish to give students an overview of some of the classical feminist theories and also some of the newest thinking. Also, through showing them multiple feminist perspectives, I would like them to learn that there is no single hegemonic feminist view. My selection is idiosyncratic to some degree, in that it does not include frameworks such as postmodernism or psychoanalytic feminism, nor any inspired by religious traditions. One cannot, however, cover everything in one semester, and it seems to me that students, particularly those who take no other women's studies class, need to understand the assumptions underlying public debates about women, family, and gender roles.

My class presentation is shaped by my teaching context, namely a Roman Catholic mid-sized comprehensive university located in west Los Angeles. Most of our undergraduates come from California or adjacent states. Whites still constitute over half of our students, and about 60 percent of the students are Catholics. Consistent with national trends, about 60 percent of our undergraduates are women, as are nearly all of our women's studies students. Few of my introductory women's studies students enter as ardent feminists. Most know only what they have absorbed from the mass media, namely that feminists are unfeminine angry manhaters who want to be superior to men, and who adhere to a feminist ("politically correct") party line. Many take the class because it satisfies a general education requirement.

As a visual aid in introducing students to feminist theories, I use a chart which lays out in graphic form the major questions and characteristics of the theories I treat.

Using the Chart

I begin by informing the students that theories are meant to explain social phenomena; they are not abstract, difficult, and irrelevant ideas. Moreover, theories may justify the status quo (e.g., conservative [End Page 229]

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Chart 1.

Theories of Gender Inequality.

[End Page 230]

theories), or they may contain within them formulas for change. I give several examples to make this point.

My diagram contains ten theoretical frameworks; three are conservative and seven are feminist. Each theory is keyed to a reading in the syllabus, respectively, a set of scriptural texts that I compiled from several world religions,2 Wilson, Dworkin (199–202), Firestone (205–209), National Organization for Women (NOW), Schlafly (34–41), excerpts from Engels, Charlotte Perkins Gilman Chapter of the New American Movement, Collins, and Okazawa-Rey.

The diagram is in the form of a grid that is essentially binary in structure. A series of questions is posed across the top from left to right, while the theories are arranged from top to bottom. The basic question as to whether the sexes are essentially the same or essentially different comes first, because for the most part it is the conservatives who emphasize essentialism, while those demanding change insist that it is some sort of social arrangement that creates inequality. The next question concerns equality, while the third very important question addresses the source of inequality. In other words, does the system have any potential for change? Where do we go if we want to make changes?

The fourth question returns to the issue of inequality: is it acceptable or unacceptable? The fifth follows: would change be a good thing, even if achievable? The sixth question is based on the third: going back to the source of inequality, how can it be reduced or eradicated? The next to last column asks what difference race or ethnicity makes in the framework under consideration, and the final column consists of a summary of the contributions of each theoretical framework, together with some comments.

Before I discuss the diagram in class, I assign the keyed reading assignments and insist that the students read them in advance. In class, I project the chart on a screen and discuss each theory in turn, going across...


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pp. 229-233
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Will Be Archived 2020
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