Feminism and Education

This blog isn’t dead!  Even if it means me writing what feels like a response paper!
Unfortunately we’ve all been pretty busy with typical twenty-something lifestyles. This does not mean we don’t talk about feminism in other places, or run into new perspectives we hadn’t considered before. Since a major theme of this blog is “twenty-somethings talk feminism,” today I’m going to indulge in a navel-gazing written exercise about my thoughts on feminism, and how they are constantly changing.
I recently shared with Emily an essay by Audre Lorde, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, which I in turn found via a comment on Feministe. The essay is thought-provoking, and gave me some revelations about myself and what many of my feminist peers wish to accomplish.

First, Lorde describes her experience at an academic conference where her voice, as well as that of many other women, are outnumbered or excluded when it comes to panel discussions about topics other than feminist-specific theory. She has an excellent point here–much mainstream theory about the liberal arts is in the ivory towers run by privileged people.

While much of Lorde’s article focuses on the exclusion of voices and the problems of ignoring differences between women, it also touched on something Emily and I have spent countless hours brainstorming and discussing. Emily and I talk about inclusiveness and how to make feminism have more of a mainstream, popular vision. We’ve bounced ideas such as using PR (public relations) tools to make feminism less of an f-word. Making “feminist” an okay and embraceable identity is important to us. I’ve certainly scowled at some notable 2nd generation feminists whose “radical” stances alienated feminism for so many people. As firm believers of being in the system to beat the system, Lorde’s essay left us a bit… struck, to say the least. In particular when she points out the problem of being too much a participant in the “system,” or “house”:

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of
that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of
change are possible and allowable” […] For the master’s tools will
never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat
him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine
change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define
the master’s house as their only source of support.

Like an arrow right into the heart. I don’t think about my own privileges enough. In an abstract sense I do, but it’s something that is difficult to grip, because it is indeed invisible as Peggy McIntosh asserted in her amazing essay. Thinking about feminism with Lorde’s and McIntosh’s essays in mind revealed to me my own privileges that I never stopped to consider. It is from a privileged position that I think of social media or writing as modes of expressing feminist ideas and a desire for change. That I think of “the system” as a way to fix the system itself illustrates my own reliance on the privileges this system gave me. While I am still trying to figure out what to make of these problems, I do think her essay will continue to inform what I do choose to write about, and devise ways to mitigate my privilege. I never made the connection between feminism, activism, and privilege until now. The earlier part of Lorde’s essay made me especially rethink education–as a “master’s tool,” or something that can be of use for feminists and others who desire a better society.

A lot of well-educated people never learn feminist theory. Part of this could be because their discipline never quite had the need for it (e.g., a natural or physical science), but a huge part of it is because the bulk of our compulsory education is taught from the perspective of white, heterosexual men. A particularly embarrassing memory comes to mind when my high school English teacher assigned Heart of Darkness. Though my teacher tried to discuss the sexism and racism of the novel, it was rather short-lived. “Well sure it is racist and sexist, but so was everything from back then, what else is there to say?” was the comment that got the most nods, and it upsets me that the class reached this conclusion because we had no other tools to argue or challenge that position. I appreciate that my teacher brought it up, but that discussion could not have ended any other way. The tools to talk about sexism and racism are simply untaught, and feminism becomes a “fringe” discipline. Part of this may be why Lorde and other women like her only get places on certain type of panels, that is, because popular opinion categorizes Women’s Studies and the like as “out there” and irrelevant to other subjects. This brings up another debate–but that is for a different blog post.

What can be done about the lack of feminist theory taught in schools? Or hell, even an alternative perspective to the one we’re taught? I have little connection to a school now, but I’m willing to do the research. But maybe this is one way to start talking about making it more okay to talk about feminist theory–to start at school and focus less on gimmicky campaigns to get attention to the cause.


About michelle m.

One Response to Feminism and Education

  1. Emily says:

    A meta-thought on this: maybe we should have a blog category for “feminist tools” in which we could file this discussion– Because I still think that there must be ways of linking feminism to *action* even if using the master’s tools is complicated. There are other tools, aren’t there?
    I suppose I’ve always been a little foggy on why exactly it is that the master’s tools can’t dismantle his house. His tools are complicated for us to use, yes. And our desire to use them stems from defining ourselves within his system and seeing ourselves as benefactors of the resultant privileges (something Lorde doesn’t have the option of doing), yes. So picking up his tools is going to be fraught with (intellectual, read: academic) problems.
    But does that make it ineffective? I fail to be convinced on this last point. Lorde hints that there might be utilitarian tools out there when she says, “know that survival is not an academic skill… It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths.” This makes sense when you consider that her article is referring to a specific feminist conference (and to a pervasive trend, as well) at which groups not allowed into the masters house (POCs, lgbt folks, older people, and the poor to name a few) are woefully under-represented (or not present at all). That trend is a reflection of the 80’s feminist movement’s failure to look to folks outside of the system, a failure to recognize complicating differences between people and potentially-allied fights. The third wave is still trying to correct this and, more importantly, to harness the strength that our differences can have when dis-empowered groups join forces.
    So what I think Lorde is really arguing is simply that we cannot be blindsided by the patriarchal status-quo (the master’s house) and fail to see that there are other systems and other ways of doing things. Not that his tools can’t be effective, but that there are other tools besides these– tools that don’t necessarily come with the baggage of belonging to oppressive systems– and that we should not discount these other tools out of fear that leaving the master’s house means loosing the privileges he gave us.

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