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It’s Time to Teach Feminism

Antonio Ramirez

Antonio Ramirez, Assistant Professor of History & Political Science at Elgin Community College.

I am a heterosexual male history teacher, and I think it is time for men, especially teachers, to embrace feminism, women's history, and queer theory. For years, I have tried to teach history that centralizes feminist struggles and women's historical and contemporary roles in politics, culture, and society. One of the ways some male students respond when I focus my teaching on women in history is to be dismissive, saying, as one student did this semester, “Why does this even matter?”

This kind of teaching matters because it helps us question the rules of gender and power that keep all people locked into an oppressive social system. If “being a man” means being dismissive or objectifying or violent towards women, then “being a man” in this way is morally wrong, oppressive to women and queer people, and dehumanizing to men. As educators like Jackson Katz and Tony Porter point out, this kind of masculinity restricts men to supposedly male actions and emotions, and belittles anything associated with women, femininity, or gender non-conformity. As a result, men end up criticizing each other for feeling or expressing emotions as basic to our humanity as love and pain and doing harm to people that don't conform to gender rules.

Our history classes often reinforce this system of gender and power. When our versions of history ignore women's perspectives and actions, we teach our students that women and their history are of little value. Outside the classroom, we echo these messages by telling young people that men do important things and women do unimportant things. We praise heterosexuality in countless ways direct and indirect. In history, as in life, we teach girls and boys to elevate men and subordinate women. We admire cisgender people and ignore transgender people. We teach that expressions of masculinity are positive and powerful while what we see as feminine is weak and can be ignored.

Several decades ago, feminists created a term to understand this system. They called it patriarchy. Patriarchy, they explained, is a system of male dominance over women that can be traced to the earliest human societies. This system locates natural authority in men and masculinity and sees women and femininity as inherently subordinate. Feminists argued that throughout history and across the globe, almost without exceptions, this system has been institutionalized at all levels of society, from the family, to culture, to political systems.

Understanding patriarchy helps reveal society's gendered nature and calls for new, revolutionary definitions of equality and justice that include women and LGBTQ people. Women's Studies Professor Ara Wilson explains that the concept “opened up an intellectual and imaginative space, and provided a vocabulary and model for understanding male dominance and female subordination as systemic, political, and self-reproducing.

In recent years, activists and scholars have clarified and expanded the idea of patriarchy. Many now see it as a system shaped by history and geography. Others have highlighted how race, class, national, and heterosexual privilege can complicate our understanding of patriarchy.

The concept of patriarchy, though, is just one of the countless insights that feminism, women's history, and queer theory have gifted the world. And as a teacher, it is my duty to share these ideas with my students and challenge them to engage, regardless of gender or sexuality.

To return to my student's question: as a man, why should I care? Because I believe that, as educator Tony Porter says, “my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.” And I believe that challenging the rules of an oppressive gender system benefits us all.

Antonio Ramirez is Assistant Professor of History & Political Science at Elgin Community College.


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