- A Map for Feminist Solidarity:How to Teach about Women of Color and Reproductive Justice in Jesuit WGS Classrooms
I recently had lunch with a colleague with whom I shared that my work on this paper felt like tiptoeing through a minefield. Her eyes widened as she nodded in agreement and responded "You are." We agreed that one of the most challenging topics to teach in women's and gender studies (WGS) is abortion. Our students, much like our society, are deeply polarized into pro-life and pro-choice positions. How are we to teach about the social and economic context of this important topic in such an ideologically charged atmosphere, especially in the Trump era? How are we to engage students with the broader field of women's and gender studies when so many are ready to dismissively reduce it to "pro-abortion" politics? As scholars such as Natalia Deeb-Sossa and Heather Kane have noted, in this climate it is tempting simply to avoid the topic. That temptation is particularly seductive at a Roman Catholic university.
As WGS is increasingly seen as an indispensable part of the academic landscape, a growing number of us find ourselves teaching WGS at religiously affiliated institutions. After I finished my PhD in feminist studies, I transitioned into a new job as tenure-track faculty in a women's and gender studies department at a private, Jesuit, historically white university1 with a liberal arts curriculum, where I find myself wrestling with three important pedagogical questions: (1) How am I to teach about abortion in a way that intellectually engages moral and religious objections? (2) How will I help my racially and economically privileged students critique the individualist, meritocratic, and colorblind ideologies that structure both the world around them and their understanding of it? and (3) How do I teach a truly intersectional course that integrates the lives and experiences of all women, particularly poor women, women of color, women outside the United States, and trans and nonbinary people? My doctoral training in feminist studies prepared me to answer the second and third of these questions. However, the pervasive assumption that WGS is a secular endeavor has made the first more challenging to tackle (Crowley).
Engaging, rather than dismissing, religion and spirituality in the classroom is required at a religiously affiliated [End Page 24] institution. However, many WGS instructors, even in public and secular private institutions, also face this challenge as they teach in "red" states or regions with religiously conservative student bodies. I suggest that the reproductive justice (RJ) model can help WGS and feminist teachers navigate the complexities of taking religion seriously when teaching about the social and economic contexts of abortion. Moreover, RJ supports the pedagogical goal of building solidarity across differences of race, class, sexuality, gender identity, and faith. That is, the RJ model has helped me with some of the longstanding challenges of teaching WGS at a predominantly white private institution since its framework forces students to confront the ideologies of colorblindness and neoliberalism that often stand in the way of their development of an intersectional feminist solidarity.
The project of building feminist solidarity cannot be achieved through a superficial engagement with intersectionality. Like many WGS teacher-scholars, I heed Chandra Mohanty's call to avoid replicating heteropatriarchal eurocentricism in Women's and Gender Studies. In her celebrated essay, "'Under Western Eyes' Revisited," Mohanty argues that WGS courses should demonstrate "the interconnectedness of the histories, experiences, and struggles of U.S. women of color, white women, and women from the third world/South. By doing this kind of comparative teaching that is attentive to power, each historical experience illuminates the experiences of the others. Thus the focus is not just on the intersections of race, class, gender, nation, and sexuality in different communities of women but on the mutuality and coimplication, which suggests attentiveness to the interweaving of the histories of these communities" (522; emphasis added). In my time teaching at a Jesuit university, I have come to understand Mohanty's vision of feminist solidarity cannot be realized without confronting the question of where religion and spirituality fit within academic feminism. As Karlyn...