Conservative Students in Women's Studies Classes
WMST-L subscriber Arnie Kahn made the following compilation of responses
he received to his January 1993 query about how to deal with conservative
students in Women's Studies classes. For additional WMST-L files now
available on the Web, see the WMST-L File List.
Date: Wed, 27 Jan 1993 20:47:29 -0500
Sender: Women's Studies List <WMST-L @ UMDD.BITNET>
From: Arnie Kahn <FAC_ASKAHN @ JMUVAX.BITNET>
Subject: Conservative Students
Help. Our Psychology of Women and Gender class has been rather
dead. Hard to get them to talk much. Today, Pam and I were
talking about images of women and how women are treated when one
student said, "I may be crazy, but I *like* having car doors
opened for me and being put on a pedestal." Another student said,
"Thank God you said that. We've (person sitting next to her) been
talking about the same thing!" Lots of discussion about this
followed, mostly about how positive the experience of "being taken
care of" is for them.
So, we've got a bunch of southern, traditional students (for the
most part) who want equal right and want to also be "ladies." We
would like to enlighten them without alienating them.
Specifically, do you know of any class exercizes we could use to
get that "click," that "oh, I'm being treated as a child, not as
the president" experience?
Thanks in advance.
Arnie Kahn, Psychology, JMU, Harrisonburg, VA 22807 (703) 568-3963 - day
fac_askahn @ vax1.acs.jmu.edu (preferred) (703) 434-0225 - night
fac_askahn @ jmuvax (703) 568-3322 - fax
From: Kirsten Lindquist <PSCI5 @ VTVM1.CC.VT.EDU>
Subject: conservative women
I led discussions in my into to politics classes and ran into similar
reactions from female students here. Oldly enough, it was the male students in
the class who expressed outrage at the women who wanted to be "taken care of"
by some anyoumous male out there. These male students turned the discussion
around for me, asking the women whether they like the fact that someone else
would have control over their (the women's) finances, would make decisions for
them on where to live, when to have babies, what kind of social life they
would have etc. Admittedly, this discussion was much more informal in
comparison to a formal classroom, but I have often found that turning the table
s on students helps to see the other perspective. Perhaps if you asked the
class (or women) to think of a decision which was made for them, which they
objected to, but were unable to override, such as what schools to go to, their
intended major, career in life etc.
Another tactic is to ask them about the position of their mother and father,
the roles them fill, and how happy their mothers or even other female relatives
are with their lot in life. Often, I have found, that the students which I
have come into contact with (mostly priviledged NOVA kids) are very sensitive
about having their world order challenged and are quick to reject something
which challenges the life they have envisioned and feel they have a right to.
Sometimes, it is easier to make the proverbial lightbulb go off when you point
to other women, and their lack of choice of "being taken care of." Although,
this doesn't necessarily accomplish the immediate goal of helping them to
realize their relatively oppressed position as women, it gets the ball rolling.
Good luck. I hope this has been of some use to you. Keep up the good work.
Kirsten Lindquist psci5 @ vtvm1.cc.vt.edu
From: CSMITH @ vms.cis.pitt.edu
Subject: conservative students
I generally have the same problem as you
seem to be experiencing, they don't want to talk and they
think that using their "feminine wiles" is a wonderful
form of manipulation. I teach at a Catholic women's college
that has a women's studies requirement for all students, so I
end up with a lot of students who don't want to be there.
I am trying a new writing assignment this semester that
may be adapted for classroom use. The assignment is as follows:
Make a list of things that women are supposedly entitled to in
our society because of their sex. Now make a list of things that
happen to women (negative) in our society because of their sex.
Comment on how you personally value both the positive and negatve
aspects of differential treatment. Would you be willing to
give up the "privileges" in order to obtain equality? Why or
The assignments are due next week, so I am not sure how this
will turn out. But you might use this as a class discussion.
CSMITH @ VMS.CIS.PITT.EDU
From: tberg @ cc.gettysburg.edu (Temma Berg)
Subject: RE:Conservative Students
Arnie, Did you ask the students when was the last time a door was held
open for them? Students have said that in my classes and I don't think it's
necessarily a sign of conservatism. I haven't decided what it is a
sign of, but it does not have to lead to non-feminist thinking or dead
classes. Discuss the issue of opening doors and lighting cigarettes (I
bet as much as they say they'd like this to happen it never has!) and then
ask why people want to be protected. I suspect men want to be protected and
taken care of too. Temma Berg
tberg @ gettysburg.edu
From: John Kellermeier <KELLERJH @ SNYPLAVA.BITNET>
Subject: RE: Conservative Students
Whenever my students raise the issue of opening doors we eventual get to
talking about holding hands. Ask your students to observe male-female
couples walking hand-in-hand. Malls are a good place to do this. They
will see that almost always the man's hand is in front. Then the students
will say things like "Well, it feels most comfortable that way!" Next ask
them to observe adult-child hand holding. Again the adult's hand is always
in front. This can help them to see how this puts them in the same
position as a child.
Another interesting approach to this is to ask a group of women to stand in
a circle and hold hands. Women usually adjust their hand positions faily
easily to accomodate holding hands around a circle. When the same thing is
tried with men you will see all the men attempting to put their hands in
front which obviously won't work in a circle.
If you try these ideas, let me know what happens.
From: hcbolak @ cats.UCSC.EDU
Subject: conservative students
you have a difficult situation at hand. I can't hink of an exercise
off hand, but I wonder if it might work to get them to think of
1) how the men in their lives might be exercising some controls which
they are not too comfortable with- i.e telling them not to dress in a
certain way, and 2) why they feel so secure that they are going to be
able to enjoy their priviliged status for any length of time 3) which women
are not put on a pedestal and why not? Aida Hurtado's piece in Signs,
June 1989 is a little sophisticated for psychology students maybe, but
makes a very good argument for the "dual construction of womanhood"
based on race and why women of Color never had the option to be treated
like white women.
From: "J. MASON-GRANT" <42131_3645 @ uwovax.uwo.ca>
Subject: conservative students
Hi Arnie: I teach philosophy courses...so careful analysis of the broad
system of cultural meaning within which we live is part of the activity of
the course. I don't know if the mode of thinking is different in a psych
course. Anyhow, one interesting way of sketching out the contours of the
broad system of meaning (and power) is to provide students with a sheet
of statistics regarding a whole range of stuff --- violence against women,
pay inequity, job inequity, race/class impact on these issues --- get them
to formulate a general picture of the lives of women who just clearly are
not "put on a pedastal". You can then affirm their own "experience" --- i.e.,
grant them their perception that they are not "oppressed" in any way by this
system of meaning --- but them urge them to develop an explanation for the
"statistics". Somehow they need to be pushed to consider whether the
system of meaning that "pampers" them systematically produces subordinating
degradation in the lives of other women.
I really like Marilyn Frye's essays in The Politics of Reality for this
purpose --- the two essays in particular that are helpful are "Oppression"
and "Sexism". They are short and easily readable --- and they link up
apparently innocuous behaviours (like door-opening) with the broader system
of meaning that produces women as helpless, fragile beings who, as a result,
cannot possibly participant as full persons in this culture.
There's my two cents worth, such as it is...
Department of Philosophy
University of Western Ontario
jmg @ uwovax.uwo.ca (Internet)
From: Leslie Bender <LBENDER @ SUVM.SYR.EDU>
Arnie, Just for you to consider with the rest of your
information, I often get the same kind of response from
my women law students. I think it is more a feature of
younger women (in part reacting to what they perceive as
the excesses of feminism in the 70s and 80s) than of
"southern" women as you hinted. The only thing I try
to do with this is examine the shallowness of some of
these responses compared to the depth of caring one really
needs and the differences in the ways that women and men
are traditionally trained to care for one another. Good
PROFESSOR LESLIE BENDER
COLLEGE OF LAW, E.I. WHITE BLDG.
SYRACUSE, NY 13244-1030
PHONE: (315) 443-4462 OR FAX:(315) 443-5394
E-MAIL: LBENDER @ SUVM.BITNET
From: IN%"barbarar @ cs.athabascau.ca" 31-JAN-1993 12:44:03.70
To: IN%"FAC_ASKAHN @ VAX1.ACS.JMU.EDU"
Re "courtesy", it is maybe not so much the act
as its social context. Surely everyone likes to
be treated as if they are respectworthy and being
paid attention to, as if their comfort etc matters.
Men often don't listen to women, or take women
seriously or give respectful treatment. Maybe
courtesy like door-opening is taken to be
1) a substitute and all that we can get anyway
2) an indicator that respect and attention are
present in the relationship
Also, if door-opening were universal and not
gendered as it is, much as it is polite in Chinese
culture to put special tidbits from the serving dish
onto the honoured guest's plate, would it not
have a different meaning? Or does it have
different meanings depending on who does it for whom
under which circumstances? ie a man opens the door
for bosses or bigshots so it can be deferential
behaviour by a subordinate, too, as well as
false deferential behaviour by a dominant.
It would be interesting to ask them to identify
courtesy acts, in one list, and contexts in
which courtesy acts occur, in another, and try
to match them up and identify which express
comradely helpfulness (ie arms full of parcels
anyone opening for anyone), kowtowing (flunky
to boss), or honouring appreciative treatment
(beloved parent, elder, special guest), and
pedestal BS. Does context rule?
Barbara Roberts barbarar @ cs.athabascau.ca
From: IN%"akonradi @ cats.UCSC.EDU" 12-FEB-1993 00:20:00.43
To: IN%"FAC_ASKAHN @ VAX1.ACS.JMU.EDU"
I've been runminating about your 1/27 posting about
conservative students who like having doors opened for them
and like being put on a pedestal. It brings to mind Susan
Griffin's classic article, "Rape the All American Crime,"
in which she makes an argument that chivalry is a male
"In the system of chivalry, men protect women against men...
But women do not get chivalry for
free. According to the logic of sexual politics, we too have
to civilize our behavior. (Enter chastity. Enter virginity.
Enter monogamy.) For the female, civilized behavior means
chastity before marriage and faithfulnees within it.
Chivalrous behavior in the male is supposed to protect that
chastity from involuntary defilement. The fly in the ointment
W7 of this otherwise peaceful system is the fallen woman. She
does not behave. And therefore she does not deserve
protection. Or, to use another argument, a major tenet of the
value system: what has once been defiled cannot again be
violated. One begins to suspect that it is the behavior of
the fallen woman, and not that of the male, that civilization
aims to control.(Ramparts, 10 (3), 1971."
I don't think the issue to tackle is the need to feel cared for, but
rather the nature of the relations in which care is given and received.
These women need to consider what they must do, or be, in order to
receive the kind of care they want/like, and consider also if
accepting certain "gifts of care" creates certain obligations.
Can these women be led to consider what their male
friends -- whom I assume are opening the doors -- expect from
them? Suppose this male who offers door help starts offering
appearance help (suggesting how she ought to dress or make
herself up), or moral help (suggestng she best not be seen at
particular "types of places"), or begins to expect particular
services from her?
Getting to these women also seems to be a matter of making
a connection between the symbolic inequalities embedded
in behaviors like door opening, and the more material
inequailties that follow from other mundane experiences.
I would want them to consider if accepting the pedestal now
does, or will, limit their ability to be equal in the future.
Tire changing comes to mind: women who allow men to change
their tires will not learn how to do so. Women who don't know
how to change tires can't get themselves going after they have
a flat on a country road. Women who can't change tires
are at the mercy of those who can. Women who can't change
tires call tow trucks and pay large amounts of $$,
or they accept help from people they do not know
under conditions they cannot control. In the first case, they
exchange $$ for a greater expectation of safety, in the second
they save $$, but except the terms of the tire changer's
definition of themselves and the situation. In both cases, it
is hard to think of the woman as being equal. Other examples
without the immediate threat of physical violence, which also
have implications for the creation/perpetuation of economic
inequality, might include giving over the responsibility for
finances to someone else (letting your husband balance the
checkbook and not knowing how much you have, and maybe not being
able to get your hands on it).
All that said, I do not have a tried and true exercise to
offer you. What I would probably do is begin with a
4-corners exercise based around behaviors that could be seen
as chivalrous from one perspective and oppressive from
another. I suspect that you can achieve a gradient of
behaviors so that most folks will move around a bit. The value
of this approach would be that it would allow these women's
interpretations to stand, but also expose them to alternate
analyses (also valid).
My experience is that many students easily
exist with contradictions because they are not pushed to
identify the analytic standpoints from which they operate, and
because they are not made to confront the logical extensions of their
perspectives. For this reason, I also think some work around
shifting frames of reference would be useful for the "ladies".
I suspect that you could construct a gradient of behaviors
(door opening to whatever) such that each women
would eventually see something as oppressive. The exercise
would be --perhaps in pairs of people who answer opposingly on
a middle rank question -- to come up with chivalrous/positive
explanations for everything on the list as well as oppressive
explanations. The goal of the exercise would not be to
convince one's partner, but to be able to articulate and use
the two (possibly more) analytic perspectives being used, and
if time allowed, to consider who benefitted from taking each
perspective to understand each example.
I hope this helps.
akonradi @ cats.ucsc.edu
For information about WMST-L
WMST-L File Collection