“Good girls, smart girls, pretty girls are seen but not heard.”
“Boys, go home and kiss your mothers, ladies take a seat.”
These are the words that my students took in every single day during our closing afternoon announcements. My principal would say these words to my students, using different variations but always espousing the same meaning.
To my students, the words seemed like white noise, the only barrier between them and leaving school. To my principal, the words were likely a form of tenderness, a way to express how much he genuinely cared for his scholars. To me, the words spat a poisonous fire that created an unrelievable internal tension.
- What was my principal saying about me, a woman?
- Was I less of a “good” female because I refused to sit down and be quiet?
- What did his words tell students about the power dynamic in my classroom?
- What did those words tell young girls about what they should be? Or want to be?
- Should we strive to be “good” girls? Why do men get to define how we can be “good?”
- What are boys being told about their roles? Why are they not allowed to be quiet?
- Who cares for them? Should they expect a submissive female in all parts of their lives?
- What about students who feel like they do not fit in the binary? What message are they being told?
I was raised by strong single women. My mother, aunt, and grandma pushed me to become a strong woman who stands up for what I know to be right. They raised me to be loud and assertive. I participated in both traditionally male and female activities, as I was taught that gender should never limit.
So, when I found myself being placed in a normatively gendered box, I found myself living in anger. Yet, anger, with no action, is volatile. I had to ask myself: How can I maneuver this situation while creating strong young people who are not limited by gender norms and roles while they are being actively reinforced?
What could this look like? I found a few strategies along my way that I want to share with you:
- Dismantle “Boys will be Boys” mentality in your classroom…and possibly in yourself. Have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about toxic masculinity in society. Ask students to reflect on gender and gender roles in their lives. Have them consider their first memories of gender.
- Use gender neutral language in the classroom.
- I loved using the Feminist lens of literary criticism to analyze texts in AP Literature, but these feminist critisicm question stems could be used in any English class. Ex: How are male and female roles defined? What constitutes masculinity and femininity? Who is not represented?
- Choose texts not written by white men. Consider female authors of color or LGBTQIA+ authors.
- Highlight influential STEAM females. If you are stuck, here is an article on 18 World Changing Inventions by Women to get you started. I love asking “so why have we never heard of this person?”
- Research inspiring women together. This allows students to really invest and get to know someone from history. The Smithonian has some excellent sources in the Because of HERstory collection.
- Bring in members of the community. There are amazing women in your community, celebrate them.
- Use an app that highlights women’s history wherever you are!
- Donate your time or talents to a group on campus! Look for Girls who Code, Prism, Girls on the Run, or Girls with Ideas.
- Have students write letters to women who inspire them. Push students past superficial compliments, and have them really identify what they value and find inspiring.
Every Friday, as soon as announcements were over, as students were trying to scramble past me to get home, I would tell them: “Make good choices, and remember, nothing good happens after midnight. It might be fun, but it is not good. I love you.”
Perhaps it did not change the messages they heard from other people, but I know that in my 18×20 my students had a space that celebrated who they were, not who society thinks they should be.