WILLA v12 - Making a Space for Girls: Feminism, Journal Writing, and the English Classroom

Volume 12
Fall 2003

Making a Space for Girls: Feminism, Journal Writing, and the English Classroom

By Kelley Dickerson Barnhardt and Elaine J. O'Quinn

Journal writing has long allowed writers the freedom to explore alternate ways of being, expressing, and believing. The form defies traditional academic ways of writing because it is personal rather than scientific, expressive rather than analytical. For women in particular, journaling has historically been a mainstay of how they chronicle, consider, weigh, and explore the meaning of their lives. As a way of connecting to the self, journals have long enabled women to speak of who they are, what they think, and what concerns them. Journals invite a consideration of the workings of the world in the context of personal experience. In the Secondary English classroom, the journal allows not only for development of self-expression, but also for critical self-discovery. It encourages autonomy for emerging writers that classroom writing rarely promises. Most important, at a time when young women are desperately trying to come to terms with themselves and their world, journaling can prove pivotal in their growth and development.

The journal is a space where no one may write for another; furthermore, it is a place where, ultimately, the power to write resides within the student. Though they may set guidelines, teachers do not control every subject and attitude a writer might consider in the journal. Thus the journal, when well appropriated, is naturally situated within the feminist classroom As feminism insists not upon a hierarchy of voices, but rather upon a reticular space where all voices are heard and valued, the journal provides a place where students may write to learn and understand rather than simply write to please the teacher and receive a good grade. Within the feminist classroom, the journal can be an agent for the development of adolescent girls' voices, a place where they can learn to write from the "power of experience" ( Flynn 124 ). If, however, a feminist pedagogy is to be effective, teachers must recognize how students assign meaning to this term and, moreover, the ways in which language can work against an understanding of what lies at the heart of feminism and feminist forms of writing intended to encourage deeper understandings of the self and the world.

The Feminist in the Classroom: Where is S/he?

Anyone who asks a typical class of students for a show of hands as to who considers himself or herself to be a feminist quickly discerns the murmurs and stifled giggles that turn into muffled "not me's." Our joint experience has been that it is not at all unusual to have a class where not a single student raises his or her hand. In other instances, a few students might raise a hand at half-mast, as they look around the room self-consciously to see if there are others also hesitant. Yet, if we ask, "Do you think women and men should have equal rights?" most students are quick with a yes response. Ask "Should women and men be paid the same salary for the same job?" and again the answer is generally yes. However, when asked to locate in history when women were given the right to vote, to have a legal say in our country, students usually can do no better than answer with "A long time ago." In truth, of course, women were granted the right to vote less than 100 years ago. Before that time, women had absolutely no public voice, no authorized public persona. Yet, even if this information leads back to reconsideration of the question "Who is a feminist?" very few students will change their minds and raise their hands.

It is easy to conclude that students' refusal to admit they might be feminists is a result of the reactionary counter rhetoric and stigma surrounding feminism. Few students want to be considered a "feminazi," a bra burner, or a stand-out-from-the-crowd radical liberal. Still, it is difficult to digest that so few students regard feminist concerns as a part of their landscape, that they do not consider themselves feminists on the most basic level, and that they are able to sit silently and allow the associations of language appropriation work against them. Knowing the prevailing attitude, teachers should not find it difficult to see why students appear uncomfortable when informed that their class will be taught from a feminist perspective. Because of the language associated with feminism, male students often think they will be bashed, judged, and graded down if they think differently. Many even exhale an audible sigh, thinking their minds and ears are about to be assaulted with rhetoric about women's rights, everything from Mary Wollstonecraft to Susan B. Anthony to Gloria Steinem. Some may even get defensive and vocalize their attitudes in inappropriate ways.

Such reactions provide teachers with all the reason they need to make sure students understand that feminism is not about trying to persuade anyone into anything, but means approaching relationships, in this case the classroom relationship, with "teaching practices which stress cooperative rather than competitive participation" (Maher in Gabriel & Smithson 14 ), something journal writing can do. Like Maher, we believe that "feminism necessitates not only the development of new knowledge, but also new forms of relationships between people" (in Gabriel & Smithson 14 ). However, new relationships with others often cannot be fully formed until students come to different understandings of their relationship with the world and self. In short, the feminist classroom encourages a space where the private and the public can meet both academically and personally, but teachers must provide mediums in which this can happen naturally. Journal writing is one such medium.

Rather than privileging one way of knowing over another, the feminist teacher recognizes and encourages different ways of knowing, but never at the expense of connection with and consideration of others. Nancy Chodorow says that "in any given society, feminine personality comes to define itself in relation and connection to other people more than masculine personality does" (in Gabriel & Smithson 13 ). Whether you agree with Chodorow or disagree is not really the issue. What is important in the context of this discussion is that students be made aware that a classroom based on feminine principles stresses connection and collaboration, indeed, depends on it for the successful growth and development of its students. This is in contrast to the classroom based on traditional hierarchies of competition and aggressiveness that often squelch female voices. As Maher asserts, "a pedagogy appropriate for voicing and exploring the hitherto unexpressed perspectives of women and others must be collaborative, cooperative, and interactive" (in Gabriel & Smithson 14 ). In essence, such a pedagogy must allow for a weaving of the private and the public in ways that traditional classrooms do not. Once again, journal writing can provide a meaningful vehicle for such practice.

As feminists, many of us want our classrooms to be spaces where female ways of learning, connecting and appropriating are valorized; but we must be careful not to wish this at the expense of our male students, for in true feminist pedagogy everyone is allowed their appropriate voice. Baym writes: "Feminism per se does not require that gender be the most important factor; feminism is ultimately a practical decision about where to direct one's limited energies and powers in the effort to make a more livable world" (62). We believe that journal writing is one place that allows students of both sexes to work through the meanings and interpretations of the world that allow it to be more "livable." By encouraging a personal practice that supports the integration of personal experience with sensibilities about the world, we invite students to alter points of view rather than being on the defensive to consistently contradict and refute the points of view of others.

Though the journal is a useful tool for both men and women, it is more commonly associated with women and women's writing. We believe that the significance and importance of the journal, both historically and culturally, reflects its ultimate value in the academy and, given the feminine part of its history, reflects too how women's writing is valued in general. The following section gives a brief outline of the history of the journal and provides some important insights of why this form of writing may often be unappreciated.

The Journal: A Brief History

Cinthia Gannett's book, Gender and the Journal , looks extensively at the history of the journal in terms of its relationship to gender; from it we learn about the complex history of this underrated genre. An important point Gannett makes is that whereas men's journals are regarded as public and academic sources of information, women's journals are perceived as belonging to the private domain, the "realm of emotion rather than that of intellect" (Gannett 149). Such a perception indicates a belief in the separation of emotion and intellect, a fact that can well be argued against. For the purposes of this paper, we consider instead the notion that as the culture surrounding journal writing evolves, so too should our understandings of the potential of journal writing.

While journaling is still widely considered a "female" form of writing, women are no longer solely relegated to the private domain. In the larger society, this means new acceptances for who women are as writers. Unfortunately, insofar as the classroom is concerned, journaling is still largely considered a feminine form of writing and is treated as such. Though we know that teachers use journals as sites for responding to texts and demonstrating knowledge of a particular subject, little attention or credit is given to this type of writing in the composition classroom, except as a form of writing practice. As many teachers can attest, while it is not unusual to see a class of students journaling in silence for a few minutes each day, it is rare to see those journals developed into ideas and arguments considered academic enough for public viewing. Instead, journal writing is mostly kept to the self with only an occasional "check" by teachers to ensure it is being done.

The earliest forms of journal writing, written before the sixteenth century, are "primarily public and communal forms of record keeping rather than documents composed by or for a single self" (Gannett 105). This is an era when men would have been the most prolific writers and would have been writing for a public forum. It is not until the Renaissance and Reformation that the journal as we now know it evolves as a form that "places value on the singular, knowing self" (105). Both diaries and journals were originally thought of as record-keeping kinds of books, and both have the Latin root meaning "day or daily, referring to a day's work, a day's travel, or daily entry of information" (106). Interestingly enough, this public notion of journal writing is the one most presented to students in their classrooms. Yet, it is this very limited interpretation of journals that causes many teachers to term them rather "useless" in the actual teaching of writing, because students so often digress to a simple chronological listing of the events of their lives. The words diary and journal have similar origins and were used interchangeably for hundreds of years; however, now, as Gannett points out, the term "diary" is "coined with negative associations of triviality, excessive sentimentality, [and] femininity" (107). Although the difference between the two forms is ambiguous, further history of journal-keeping traditions reveal that through time the diary became known as a more privatized form of writing, whereas the journal continues to serve first a private and then a public function. Diaries, because of their association with women's ways of writing and the privatized, informal nature with which they are allied, remain mostly discouraged by those who believe writing should be more "standardized", even though journal writing has a vast potential for examining and exploring the more profound thought which grows out of writing that is not a mere listing of events. While it is true that both forms are ultimately considered less valuable in academic writing, it concerns us that the reason for the devaluation of the more private form, the diary, is clearly gendered.

Though both men and women have kept journals in the past, Gannet comments that two overlapping sets of difficulties prevent us from seeing the contribution the diary tradition by women can make to writing. The first issue is that the discourse about diaries and journals, until recently, has been carried on by males about males, using male criteria for evaluating works, which has marginalized or elided women's diary traditions. The second problem, a related one, is that historically men's diaries are considered more important and are more frequently preserved (120). Journals by and about males have been studied, valued, and maintained, while journals by and about women, if saved, have been mostly catalogued under male family names (121). Women's writing, which often integrates the private and public spheres and reflects events that happen not only inside and outside the home, but also internally, remains largely undervalued. Penelope Franklin, author of Private Pages: Diaries of American Women 1830s-1970's writes: "Since women weren't for the most part climbing mountains or running for office, no one had considered their personal diaries particularly interesting" (in Gannett 121). Women's writing, like their speech, has always tended to develop in the private and domestic sphere, even if it concerns itself with what might be considered public issues. Of this, Gannett writes:

The idea of keeping a journal as part of the social-or-domestic discourse network seems a central and unique aspect of women's journal traditions. [This is] a kind of writing practice that [allows] for the expression of a relationally organized sense of self… flexible enough to allow for the discontinuity, gaps, and silences that [are] an inevitable part of female life (148).

In other words, women's journals have historically served many functions, as a family record, a family history, a log book, etc, but also as a space where women might "explore their world and the world with less interruption or judgment" (149). The journal is a place that can make up for an otherwise "silent" existence.

Women's Voices

The above discussion indicates our belief in the continuing notion that the journal's association with women's approaches to writing has resulted in its devaluation as a valid and "academic" form of writing. The residual of this way of thinking reflects, in a sense, the ways in which women's writing and thinking are treated in the classroom. Though the journal is a valuable resource for many reasons, within the classroom, female students face problems and issues that may not even be recognized as stemming from this same line of thinking. A willingness to comply and be a "good student" forces many unknowing women into silence in the back row. The hidden curriculum, which recognizes the public voice as more valuable than the personal one, holds women in a submissive role, a role that can result in never feeling quite good enough academically because what they desire to say is clearly not as valued as what they are expected to say.

Gannett writes: "Women's problems with language and texts stem in large part from their difficulty in gaining full access to and participation in the generation of meaning and discursive forms" (45). Of this, Elaine Showalter comments that "the problem is not that language is insufficient to express women's consciousness, but that women have been denied the full resources of language and have been forced into silence, euphemism, and circumlocution" (in Gannett 45). Women's attitudes and approaches toward writing are, for whatever causes, different from men's. Of this truth,. Elizabeth Flynn writes: "A recognition that women are different in important ways from men is a necessary first step in a recognition that power has been distributed inequitably throughout history and in every culture" (124). The next step in this recognition of difference is placing equal value on both ways of being in the world. The journal, in that it allows a space to write freely, allows an equitable space. However, this small measure of equity and autonomy does not automatically spill over into the classroom at large.

Women are largely expected to live up to a male standard, as the dominant discourse of most schools is masculine. Frances Maher describes such schools as having a "male-dominated hierarchy" over far less powerful students who are "denied their own voices" (in Gabriel & Smithson 14). Elizabeth Flynn writes, "Women's perspectives have been suppressed, silenced, marginalized, written out of what counts as authoritative knowledge. Difference is erased in a desire to universalize. Men become the standard against which women are judged" (114). Our own academic experience certainly mirrors this assertion, and though we represent only two such experiences, research and conversation with female friends, colleagues, and students reveal that ultimately, it seems academic discourse continues to be gripped by a masculine stronghold.

Flynn notes that "[a]s writing teachers, we have an opportunity -- indeed an obligation -- to attempt to rectify those inequities by placing women's texts at the center of our curricula and by encouraging our women students to write from the power of their experience" (124). If female students are not given models of women writing, reading and living, and if women's history is not validated in the classroom, then how can our female students realize that their own experience is valid? Too, if women are not allowed to write in their own form and voice, it seems impossible that they will ever discover their own power through writing. Gannett reminds us that "women, like other marginalized discoursers, have always had to be in some sense "multicultural," or perhaps "multidiscursive," to be able to function within the dominant male discourse communities" (195). Journal writing encourages women to bring to life the opinions and ideas that teem within. By allowing a personalization, what Gannet might call "multidiscursiveness," of those ideas, writing that previously seemed calculated and distant may become creative and intimate. That women must write to a standard of maleness while at the same time trying to cultivate and dignify their own voice is not a new concept. However, that women's attitudes and approaches to writing are worth valuing in emerging writers is a concept that, we believe, deserves attention.

Patrocinio Schweickart writes. "I like the idea of reading literature as an occasion for self-re-creation and expression, and as part of the process of cultivating, nurturing, and elaborating one's identity. I am inclined to favor a theory that values the freedom of expression of students, even if this implies the need to rethink the discipline" (82). We agree with Schweickart that a theory that values freedom of expression is imperative if we want our students to grow; further, we believe writing can serve this function in the classroom every bit as much as literature can. We do not believe this theory of freedom occurs in a happenstance way. It requires a mechanism of pedagogical choices on the part of the teacher, if it is to be executed in a meaningful and purposeful way. One theory that values such freedom of expression is feminism, which we believe is a viable vehicle of delivery for the kind of classroom just discussed.

Classrooms and the Freedom to Write the Self

The illusion that teacher-centered academic insight is always clear and certain tends to quell any sort of student response. However, in order to grow, students must know that their opinions matter, and that their reflections and thoughts are worth something. Often students' insecurities concerning reading and writing hinder their participation in classroom activities and exercises. As noted, one of the spaces where students may be free to express themselves is the journal, as it allows them a position from which to write, a space where "their point-of-view on the universe matters" (Pipher 255). Young women, we know, desperately need this kind of space (Pipher 1994, Barbieri 1995, Finders 1997, Fine 2001). The journal can be a space for academic ruminations, for personal thoughts and feelings, for writing that clarifies and helps with understanding. It can be a space for trying out different voices, for writing poems, for writing letters. Whatever the writing, it is the student's own, a place where they can "develop understandings in the context of their own emotions and their own curiosity about life and literature" (Rosenblatt 63).

Students, especially women, are not always accustomed to a classroom where their opinions matter. They are accustomed to receiving lectures, taking notes, taking tests, having discussions, and writing essays based on the thoughts of others. Of this kind of classroom, Patricia Schniedewind writes: "Many academics distrust anything that is not lecture-discussion" (in Gabriel and Smithson 14). Student response and student-generated ideas require a relinquishing of control on the part of the teacher, and it is control that must be given up if the journal is to play an active role in the classroom. Teachers cannot control what students write or think, but in order to allow them to develop their own thoughts and ideas, and to develop as people, the need to have power over everything written must be abandoned. The journal allows students to have their own thoughts, to be creative with these thoughts, and to manipulate ideas, truths, and texts. For women, a space where their opinions matter is especially critical.

The journal is also a place where no one can think for another, where there are no right or wrong answers, where "the search for meaning starts with their (the students' own feelings and experiences" (Parsons 12). The journal frees writers to work through a response not only to literary ideas, but also to ideas about the surrounding world. Writing without restricting rules and regulations allows for the personal conclusions and realization necessary for adolescent growth and development. The journal aids in helping youth make connections between their lives and the lives of others. They can come to an awareness of the connections between the two only if given an opportunity to think, write, and express freely. If students are expected to improve as readers, writers, and thinkers, they must be given' the chance to practice these skills. The journal seems a logical site for such exercises.

Concluding Thoughts

Feminist pedagogies by their nature adjust their focus to include gender. Their purpose is to result in a space that recognizes the discursive habits of female students and to work toward including and acknowledge women's approaches to thought and action. The journal is a writing vehicle that supports such beliefs. It is a place where the private world of thought can meet the public agenda of academia, a place where students, both male and female alike, can write from personal experience toward a global understanding. The journal is a feminist form of writing that easily enhances a feminist pedagogy while encouraging the growth and development of students not only as writers, but also as people. In her remarkable book, Just Girls, Hidden Literacies and Life in Junior High , Margaret Finders says that "safe haven" classrooms are not necessarily the best idea. She advocates making the classroom a political space, a space where students are free to argue, struggle, disagree, and ultimately come to terms with their own place in the world. She states: "I advocate bringing dissent into the public arena … [thereby] trying to create a course that allows the students to use their writing to investigate the cultural conflicts that serve to define and limit their lived experience" (127). Situating writing as a genderized concept politicizes it in meaningful ways, and feminists have come to realize that the personal is always political. Personal journaling in a politically contentious classroom helps dramatize this fact for all participants. It is critical that our students and our colleagues recognize that marginalizing a genre such as the journal because of notions of who and how it serves is simply one more way of silencing and repressing female voices.

Works Cited

Barbieri, Maureen. Sounds from the Heart: Learning to Listen to Girls . Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1995.

Baym, Nina. "The Feminist Teacher of Literature: Feminist or Teacher?" Gabriel and Smithson 60-77.

Finders, Margaret J. Just Girls: Hidden Literacies and Life in Junior High . New York: Teachers College Press, 1997.

Fine, Carla. Strong, Smart & Bold: Empowering Girls for Life . New York: Girls Inc., 2001.

Flynn, Elizabeth A. "Composing as a Woman." Gabriel and Smithson 112-126.

Gabriel, Susan and Isaiah Smithson, eds. Gender in the Classroom: Power and Pedagogy . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Gannett, Cinthia. Gender and the Journal: Diaries and Academic Discourse . Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Parsons, Les. Response Journals . Ontario: Heinemann, 1990.

Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Lives of Adolescent Girls . New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Rosenblatt, Louise. Literature as Exploration . New York: MLA, 1995.

Schweickart, Patrocino P. "Reading, Teaching, and the Ethic of Care." Gabriel and Smithson 78-95.

Smithson, Isaiah. "Introduction: Investigating Gender, Power, and Pedagogy." Gabriel and Smithson 1-27.

Kelley Dickerson Barnhardt is a lecturer in the English department at Clemson University . She lives in Greenville, SC, with her husband Jay and her two dogs, Elvis and Lucy.

Elaine J. O'Quinn is an Assistant Professor of English at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. Among other things, she teaches courses in Adolescent Literature and Issues in Teaching English.

Reference Citation: Barnhardt, Kelley Dickerson and O'Quinn, Elaine J. (2003). "Making a Space for Girls: Feminism, Journal Writing, and the English Classroom." WILLA , Volume XII, p. 10-17.