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The Women in Literacy and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Current Journal Editor:
Katherine Macro kjmacro@gmail.com
Volume 11
Fall 2002


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Suffragettes, Feminists, Grrls: The Journey

From the Editor: Lee Williams, Slippery Rock University

What is the status of women in the profession? What is the state of gender equity in schools? Are freedoms for women guaranteed or still uncertain?

The idea for a themed issue of WILLA came at an NCTE conference where many of the sessions were focusing on the unfairness of the English language arts curriculum for boys. Too feminine, they said. Too girl-focused, they complained. Some of us looked at each other in disbelief. Others of us thought about the concept of backlash (especially as interpreted by Naomi Wolfe in her book of the same name). Still others of us wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, hadn't our Assembly focused on gender equity for boys and girls, for men and women for several years, actually submitting a changed purpose statement and a revised constitution to NCTE?

What I remember most clearly, however, was a comment made by a founding Assembly member, formerly the head of a women's studies program, now retired. "We have to be careful," she cautioned, "not to let a focus on unfairness to boys distract us from our work for gender equity for women. Men still have the cultural privilege and women still have a long way to go."

The question remains. Do men still have the cultural privilege? Women are the majority of college attendees while test scores show boys lag behind girls in reading and writing throughout the grades. Add to that the fact that men make up more of the prison population. Yet men still out-earn women in the workplace, especially in executive positions. At my university, women are in the majority in general, but in the minority as full professors. What do these "facts" mean?

Maxine Hairston applied the idea of paradigm shift to composition studies in the 80s, borrowing Kuhn's theory about how the sciences move from one worldview to another. I am going to borrow the concept once again, and compare the questions we ask about gender equity to a paradigm shift of sorts. When Victorian women thought about equality, some forward thinkers included free love, birth control and women's right to hold jobs and vote in their concept of equality. Yet when most people think about early women's rights advocates, I would imagine most are like me. The first thing that comes to mind is the right to vote. In fact, the women in the movement became known as Suffragettes. The movement sought a value-added component with a basically unchanged paradigm of what it meant to be a woman.

Later, however, in the 1960s, feminists struggled to define femininity in opposition to socially and culturally established norms and to create a space for women not defined as male-deficient. I was young enough in the 60s to have been on the fringes, where my role was less intellectual and more concrete. I wore pants to school (shocking!) and earth shoes (laughing at my mother's spike heels). It was a romantic journey of sorts; back to nature, but at the same time a modern one, debunking essentialism of a particular male or a particular female way of being. This was a new vision of what being female meant.

And now the young women around me seem to flaunt the feminism I understand. They wear high-heeled shoes and lots of make-up. Their sexuality isn't about free love (this is the age of AIDS and STDs) but about teasing and play and pornography. They resist labels. They resist taking roles as identity. Even their label seems rough-grrls sure doesn't sound girly, does it? They play with their reality, and live in a world that often consists of multiple realities. They know what they should be, but they also know how to use something they aren't to get what they want. They do it in such a light-hearted manner as to be confusing to a strident old-school feminist like me. Their paradigm is post-modern.

The authors this issue re-visit gender equity, each with her own perspective on the paradigm. Kim Chuppa-Cornell does a thorough job of tracing the scholarship of women's studies. Kathy Sanford investigates how teachers recreate classroom spaces in ways that may or may not lead to equity unless they are given new perspectives from which to view schooling. Anne Namuth and her student Ashley Calhoun investigate how kids learn (and unlearn) gendered expectations in the English language arts. Lynn Butler-Kisber uses a poetry series as a way to reconstruct her own journey. And Hilve Firek makes a powerful case for female--friendly, English teacher approved technology. Finally, Mary Styslinger discovers the post-modern feminist is one in her own classroom. And Marci Vogel poignantly reminds us that the journey is not yet over.

Reference Citation: Williams, Lee. (2002) "Suffragettes, Feminists, Grrls: The Journey." WILLA, Volume 11, p. 2.


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