Reflections on teaching. Insights into feminism.

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Reflections on teaching. Insights into feminism.

by Brenda D. Frink on Monday, January 17, 2011 - 1:54am

Estelle FreedmanIn 1980, four years after she arrived on campus as an assistant professor, Estelle B. Freedman co-founded Stanford University’s Program in Feminist Studies. Thirty years later, the program boasts faculty from twenty-seven different academic disciplines and its courses draw students from around the campus.

At a panel event titled "Beyond the Stalled Revolution," Freedman reflected on her years of experience teaching feminist studies. Freedman began teaching Stanford courses about women and gender in the late 1970s. Her students engaged enthusiastically with women’s issues, in the context of the feminist movements of the time. Students arrived with a high level of political motivation, and the challenge was to channel that enthusiasm to complex analysis, rather than to simply “add and stir” women, as a category, to the study of humanities and social sciences. For example, it was not enough to simply identify “great women” who had contributed to history, literature, and more. Rather, Freedman encouraged her students to analyze the intersecting hierarchies that permitted some women and men, but not others, to gain positions of power and influence.

In the Reagan Era, the political environment changed, both inside and outside the classroom. More incoming students expressed discomfort with the word “feminism”—even as they largely embraced the feminist movement’s central tenets. Freedman observed “a seeming paradox of young women who felt entitled to economic and social equality with men yet expressed an escalating fear of feminism.” Some scholars have correlated this escalating fear of feminism with a “stall” in the gender revolution.

Many of Freedman’s students expressed faith in American ideals of equality and did not see the need for a feminist movement. Other students perceived the feminist movement as being solely for lesbian women or solely for the white, middle-class. Indeed, over the years a major goal of Freedman’s has been to ensure that in addition to thinking in terms of gender, her students consider other social categories such as race, class, and sexuality.

As an example, Freedman pointed to critics of a liberal feminism that once focused narrowly on encouraging educated housewives to leave their homes and enter the workforce. This strategy may improve the lives of middle-class women but does not address the concerns of their working-class peers. In fact, the professionalization of middle-class women (often white) has largely relied on inexpensive domestic labor provided by working-class women (often non-white), as housecleaners and childcare providers.

“Hence the question,” asked Freedman, “does women’s liberation liberate the maid?”

By thinking of ways to simultaneously address race, class, and gender issues, Freedman challenges her students to develop complex solutions to social problems. “I’m often surprised by the number of students who report that the most important thing they learned in Feminist Studies is that race makes a difference. I’m delighted they learned that, surprised it has taken this long.”

Beginning in the 1990s, Freedman has seen a new group of students in her classes: the sons and daughters of second-wave feminists. Simultaneously, national and international political developments—such as the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the international exposes of sex trafficking of women, and the same-sex marriage campaign—have made many students sympathetic to movements for gender and sexual equality, even if they do not personally claim the label “feminist.”

Despite the changes in student concerns over the course of Freedman’s teaching career, there have been some constants. One is the issue of physical vulnerability—although services and awareness have increased, women as well as gay men and transgendered students continue to feel vulnerable to physical and sexual assault. Freedman is currently responding to the issue of sexual violence by writing a book about the political response to rape in American history.

Another matter is the need to place the study of gender within contexts of other social issues. In the lives of women around the world, the hierarchies of race, class, and nationality are as salient as the hierarchy of gender. Freedman’s books No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women and The Essential Feminist Reader, both of which are used in courses in the United States, analyze gender from complex, global perspectives.

At the “Beyond the Stalled Revolution” panel, Freedman and other scholars met to consider the recent history and the future direction of the feminist movement. Asked to issue her recommendations for the future, Freedman closed her remarks with a caution, one that echoed a major message of her courses:

“Addressing only the status of women will not suffice…. Feminism will fail if we strive merely to make women the equals of men in their capacities to exploit and to be exploited. Rather, we need to explore how our insights about women can help us to create a more egalitarian world.” 


This article is the third in a five-part series on the “Beyond the Stalled Revolution” panel. Upcoming issues of Gender News will feature additional scholars who spoke at the event. More information about Estelle B. Freedman’s courses and research can be found at