She’s That Feminist Teacher

Alice Elwell

When I was a young girl, I heard No Doubt’s Just A Girl on the radio and my tiny mind exploded with feminist possibility. I implicitly understood the irony inherent in the title and found the message of empowerment, delivered with sneering sarcasm, to be utterly intoxicating. “I’m a feminist!” I would scream to anyone who would listen, thrusting my chin boldly and revelling in the feeling of power this new identity gave me. It felt like I had just found the key to the universe and I had to share it (quite vociferously) with all.

When I first started teaching, I felt myself push Feminist Alice to the back of the wardrobe as I put on Teacher Alice’s professional new attire. I felt like I couldn’t wear that identity with pride for fear of being too political in the classroom. Parent complaints weighed heavy on my mind in my first few years of teaching, and I had a sense that feminism was something too radical to be brought into the classroom. Gone was the thrilling first flush of finding feminism; since I’d first heard Gwen Stefani’s feminist anthem, I’d been taught that feminism was actually a dirty word; a synonym for man-hater; something that you could be but maybe just not say. Of course, I didn’t believe in all of this “I’m not a feminist but here behold as I say something feminist” rhetoric, and in my personal life I continued to be an out-and-proud-lady-of-liberation, but didn’t think that Teacher Alice was allowed to be anything except firmly neutral at all times.

However, trying to keep a massive part of your identity secret is like trying to smuggle a cat under your dress and hoping that no-one notices the writhing beast betwixt your horrifically clawed skin. Neutral Alice couldn’t and didn’t last long. By my second year of teaching, I was explicitly teaching feminism in my English classes and garnering the reputation of Ms Elwell, You Know, That Feminist Teacher.

The first year I taught The Taming of the Shrew to year twelve I caused a minor controversy when I started teaching the difference between sex and gender. We brainstormed a list of typically masculine characteristics on the board, then feminine ones. “Strong!” “Good at maths!” “Leaders!” they shouted out. Next came the feminine counterparts. “They love to shop!” “Crying all the time!” “Mothers!” The students loved it. This was much easier than trying to decipher Elizabethan English. They had been learning the language of gender since they were small children and they knew how to divide everything into binaries of strong and weak, rational and emotional, stoic and talkative.

When I asked the students to examine the list of gendered characteristics and to ask if all the girls felt the feminine characteristics exclusively applied to them, and if all the boys felt that the masculine characteristics exclusively applied to them, the mood shifted. This was unfamiliar territory and the discomfort was palpable. Although the students seemed comfortable with the idea that the male/female gender binary is restrictive and not reflective of a wide range of experiences, there was a sense that something heavy was hanging in the air, that I had spoiled a magic trick for them or spoken about something that should remain unspoken. My heart beat heavy in my chest as I tried not to look too deeply into the eyes of my students lest I saw rage staring back at me.

Around this time, #GamerGate was dominating the discussion on feminism and, at least in my experience, a new breed of anti-feminists were being birthed on forums and brought to life by persuasive YouTube videos. This army of angry pawns was raring to vomit vitriol at the enemy queen (that’s me!). In years to come, I would meet many of the young men (and in my experience, it was always young white men) who had been intoxicated by the ideologies of Milo Yiannopoulos and his hateful contemporaries.

Despite all this, I was utterly unprepared for my first experience of open misogyny in the classroom. It came about in an innocuous way. After our activity on gender, we were discussing the way that Petruchio’s abuse of Katherine would have been viewed in a comedic manner by the Elizabethan audience. I made the assertion that Petruchio’s misogyny is horrifying but sadly still recognisable today. At that point, one of my male students piped up, his eyes filled with fury but his voice calm and resonant. “But Miss, so many women think they are better than men. Feminists hate men. You’re being really unfair by talking about misogyny when more women hate men.”

I was gobsmacked. It seems ridiculous to say that now, when in the years that followed I would have boys shriek “FEMINISM IS CANCER!” at me in the playground, cackling manically and slapping each other’s backs with glee at my barely contained fury. At the time, though, I was shocked that David, who was usually such a friendly and jovial boy and who rarely spoke up in class, had delivered his point with such a look of cold hatred, as if I had betrayed him by revealing my true feminist self.

A frisson of excitement went through the room. The class were interested in this; they wanted to see my reaction and many disagreed with David’s message. Many, however, agreed with him. I saw in their faces a clear alignment with David, a covert current of agreement running between them. I knew I had to be careful with how I proceeded but adrenaline was coursing through my body and anxiety was rising in my throat. In circumstances like these, it is deeply unpleasant to try to reconcile my role as a teacher with my identity as a feminist. Which sword do I swallow? Does Professional Alice defer to her perceived duty as a teacher and try to wrangle the tiger back into its cage? Or does Feminist Alice let the cage door slam closed behind it and revel in its deafening roar?

Thoughts of parent complaints flashed before me. The minutes of the lesson ticked down. I knew this was an important moment, that I was teaching more than just a 400-year-old play. I thanked David for sharing his points and countered that while there may be some women who believe that they are superior to men, the sad reality is that we can see pretty clear evidence of misogyny through the numbers of women who die from or are injured by domestic violence every year. So, even if women do hate men, the cost of men’s hate is a lot higher. I told the class that feminism is not about hating men, but that it was a movement towards equality. This roused David further.

“Yeah, but women don’t want equality, they want more power than men,” he spat.

“So – you mean that some women want to have the same power that men have? Do you realise that you are saying that the status quo is that men have more power, and that women can try and seek equal power but any more would be deeply wrong….but isn’t that what men have today?” I countered, cheeks flushed, heartbeat pounding parent complaints, parent complaints, parent complaints. The temperature of the classroom seemed to raise several degrees at that point as various students weighed in with their thoughts, in favour of both arguments. David, meanwhile, slumped in his chair, glowering at me. The bell rang and the students filed out. I tried to call David over to have a one-on-one chat, to smooth the rough edges and repair some of the damage but he picked his bag up and walked away.

When I went home that night, I asked my partner why he thought students were so challenged by the ideas of feminism, with being told that maybe things aren’t just peachy and that the status quo needs to change. He suggested that maybe that this sort of knowledge is really challenging for some because it can feel like being told that they should feel guilty for something that they don’t feel they have done, and even though I wasn’t trying to make them feel guilty, it still made them feel that way because the truth can be painful. I thought about how some students reacted when I discussed immigration, or the difference in outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and felt a flicker of recognition in their faces washed with discomfort.

But I didn’t want to leave it there. I didn’t want that to be the last of it. So, I started the next lesson with a talk about how studying literature connects us to wider issues in society and although that might make us uncomfortable, it starts an important dialogue. I told the class that I’m passionate about advocating for the rights of people from all backgrounds, but I will obviously identify more with issues relating to females but that my beliefs do not invalidate theirs. David remained silent. A few others smiled in recognition, and we moved on to discussing the themes of The Taming of the Shrew. David seemed to forgive me, and life went on.

Except now that I had let my feminism out of the cage, it wasn’t going anywhere. The next year, instead of repeating The Great Gatsby as a novel study I chose The Handmaid’s Tale. I relished as it gave students an opportunity to express their burgeoning feminist thought. I smiled as I read feature articles on Offred as a hero whose heroism stemmed from her decision to say that I matter, I will make the most of my life, I will seek pleasure where others want me to be an empty vessel. I started teaching English Extension and relished the opportunity to teach feminist literary theory. One year, one of my students, an arrogant but brilliant boy, asked coolly “And what literary theory discusses the experiences of men, Miss?”

I replied “Feminism, Tim. Feminism examines the ways in which masculinity is constructed and reproduced.” No longer did I feel like I was saying something wrong or that I needed to present the most neutral possible version of facts. I had stopped seeing feminism as ‘too political’ and started realising its transformative potential. I saw the way it lit up my students’ faces. I saw the way that it gave them the potential to discuss the issues that mattered to them. I delighted in teaching them the theories of bell hooks and the possibilities of sex positive feminism, and encouraged them to write themselves into their world just as Hélène Cixous had suggested.

Once you boldly announce yourself as a feminist teacher, it is like unlocking a door. Students come up to you to share articles of outrage with you, or to tell you about something sexist a family member or colleague said. I could see the pain in their eyes and the fire in their bellies and felt a sense of profound recognition. I developed a reputation, and a sense that that reputation was something to be proud of, an opportunity for discussion. A student said, “Miss, you taught my sister. She said, ‘Ms Elwell’s great, but she’s a big feminist’,”

“But?” I said, smiling. “What does that mean, Sarah? I’m a big feminist, so you shouldn’t say anything sexist around me?”

“Yeah!” laughed Sarah. “She meant it in a good way, though,”

“I should think so,” I said. “Everyone should be a feminist. Feminism just means believing men and women should be equal and working toward equity.” Gone was the anxiety, the thumping heartbeat. Gone was the fear. I couldn’t separate my feminist identity from my teacher identity and I wasn’t going to. Instead of being angered by my statement, I saw many students – males and females – nodding with agreement. I think if anything, they were enjoying hearing a teacher share something of themselves. When another student piped up with “I think the word feminism really turns people off; it should just be humanism,” the class groaned. I smiled. I was calm. I was ready for this. The class was too.

It hasn’t been a linear journey, from feminist and teacher to feminist teacher. Some days, I want to lock that identity away because it hurts when students use it against me. Once, an angry male student spat “the gender pay gap is a myth, Miss. Women just don’t negotiate hard enough.” His words were carefully calibrated to sting and to maim by taking what I knew to be true and telling me that it was all in my head; that I was a crazy feminist. That women are liars.

Sometimes, I feel like I have to apologise for my identity, to make clear to students that I am capable of ‘switching off’ my feminism and that I won’t be biased against them if their writing is sexist or goes against my clear left-wing views. Sometimes, I notice the loaded glances that shoot across the room when I mention gender or sexuality or race or inequality and that glance feels so heavy that it almost takes me down with it. Sometimes, I want to say to my students that I am sorry that I make them uncomfortable but that I bring these things up because it is the truth and they need to know. Sometimes, when a female student is telling me something like, “I just don’t think we need feminism because I have grown up in a world where men and women are equal,” I want to cry because I am faced with an impossible choice: do I keep quiet and let them believe in that utopian fantasy, or do I be the joyless feminist rattling off the myriad statistics which objectively measure the ways in which women, particularly women of colour, are not equal to men? Heavy is the head that holds the knowledge that the mirage of equality will dissipate as they get older and have to deal with male colleagues who will laugh as they joke about stealing credit for their work, or sit through meetings where female voices are drowned out by male voices, and realise that they can never measure up to the standards of mediocre men. You know, those ‘good blokes’.

But I persist. I persist because students reflect on what feminism means and the quiet ones tell me that they loved learning about gender and power, much to my surprise. I persist because my students show me cute feminist memes. I persist because I see students after they have graduated and they want to discuss something sexist they have experienced. I persist because my students want to be activists, want to show me the Pride bricks they have painted to go outside the art room, want my approval over their scheme to cover the bathroom mirrors with post it notes of affirmation. Their shining faces flushed with excitement will always outshine David’s anger, the anger of the playground duty pack of slavering teens shouting a barrage of sexist slogans at me. The knowledge that those feminist students will go on to continue their feminism lights a fire inside of me. And so I persist.

I am a high school English teacher based in Brisbane. I’m about to start my PhD at Deakin after finishing a Master of Educational Studies last year. My research is on the successes and struggles of feminist teachers, so I thought it would be a good idea to write my own story and here we are 🙂