A Classroom Surprise

My AP classes are now reading about the Progressive Era. The period from roughly 1880 to 1914 is one of those quagmires that I never feel completely comfortable teaching. It’s become much easier over the last two years, but I still don’t have the confidence that I feel when I am teaching the colonial and antebellum periods or more recent trends. One of the areas that I stressed this year was the New Feminist movement of the early 20th century. I did this for a couple reasons, most importantly owing to the fact that the majority of my students are girls and next year I will be offering an elective on 20th century women’s history. Of course I know next to nothing about this subject, but I wanted to force myself to learn a new area and offer a course that the more high powered female students might be interested in taking. Last week we read primary sources by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on women at work and Margaret Sanger on birth control. We had some very interesting and intense discussions especially about Sanger’s economic argument for birth control.

Noticing that the girls in the class were really getting into the discussion I announced that my women’s history course will be offered next year as an elective. The response was dumfounding. At least half the girls in the class expressed a visceral displeasure at the prospect of having to take an entire course on women. I tried to steer the discussion in a way that would get at some rational explanation, but there was no one willing to share. The next day I asked again suspecting that some of the students might be a bit more relaxed. One of the students was kind enough to share her thoughts and what she said gives me reason to think that I will have my hands filled next year. Speaking only for herself she stated that many of the women that she perceived as falling within the domain of women’s history strike her as unfeminine and therefore unattractive to study. She acknowledged that many of the freedoms that she enjoys were the result of the sacrifice by women that came before her, but this still did not provide a sufficient reason for engaging in serious study. Of course there were plenty of girls in the class that were excited at the prospect of taking an elective on women’s history, but I was still surprised by the number of girls that expressed such a deep animosity to the idea.

I am looking forward to teaching an entire course on gender and exploring the ways in which politics, economics, and culture have shaped the course of women’s lives. Not knowing much about a particular subject is both refreshing and intimidating, but it is what makes teaching such an adventure. I have the luxury of being able to shape not only the intellectual lives of my students, but also my own.

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