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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Women's & Gender Studies in High Schools*

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Why Women's & Gender Studies in high schools?

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Women's & Gender Studies

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*(but were afraid to ask)


Feminism analyzes the way that women's situations have been shaped by and, in turn, shape the whole social world. The focus is on women, but the basic enterprise is an attempt to understand and evaluate human affairs.
- Margaret Lowe Bentson, 1937-1991



On this page:

What We Want

What Is Women's & Gender Studies?

What Is Women's & Gender Studies, Take 2: A Review by Sheetal Rawal (BA & MA English & Women's Studies)

Is Women's & Gender Studies "for girls" only?

Do any other provinces in Canada have Women's & Gender Studies Classes?

From Women's Studies to Women's & Gender Studies

Suggested High-School Level Course Objectives





What We Want

1. The revision of the curriculum to include a Women's and Gender Studies course, modeled after an introductory Women’s Studies course available at the post- secondary level.

2. This course would be created through the Interdisciplinary Curriculum document; at the grade 11 and 12 levels; in both Open and University/College options.

3. In order to increase both the versatility and durability of this course, we propose that it be designed so that it could be taught within various disciplines, including Geography, English, History, and the Social Sciences.


What is Women's & Gender Studies?

Women's Studies grew as a field of study at the university level in the mid-20th century. It recognizes how women of diverse backgrounds have been made invisible through the androcentrism, racism, classism, heterosexism, and so on, of traditional education curricula, and attempts to uncover their stories across various disciplines. As well, Women's & Gender Studies offers important, critical, and intelligent analysis of gender constructions and gender relations. Increasingly over the course of the last few years, many programs have begun including 'gender' in the title or simply changing their names to Gender Studies (see example in section ii). These changes tend to reflect a growing recognition of the importance of gender constructions and relations as well as (and indeed central to) the study of sexism in the lives of women and analyzing wider systems of patriarchal oppression.

University-level Examples

The following are examples of Women’s & Gender Studies course objectives, taken from university-level syllabi:

“Women's Studies employs an interdisciplinary set of tools for analyzing women's experiences and studies the ways that sex and gender manifest themselves in social, cultural, and political contexts. As an introduction to Women's Studies, this course is designed to: (i) acquaint you with some key issues, questions, and debates in the field of Women's Studies; (ii) introduce some of the frameworks and concepts feminist scholars have developed; (iii) hone your ability to analyze arguments and "read" gender; and (iv) increase awareness of the history and experience of women as half the world's population.”
– Introduction to Women’s Studies (SP 401). Prof. Sally Haslanger, MIT


“We will be examining from a variety of ‘angles’ historical and contemporary relationships between culture and power; between knowledge and power; and between identity, social difference (gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability) and power. Working to develop and build upon resistant readings of contemporary culture, we will consider women as cultural producers, examining both historical and current cultural production/s. [...] In our discussions throughout the term, we will consider modes of resistance in contemporary culture, analyzing alliances and boundaries to solidarity in contemporary activism, and working to become engaged national and transnational citizens. Our discussions of social activism and resistance will necessarily consider such questions as, What is a woman? Is it possible to speak as a woman, or in the name of women for global social justice? If so, what are the benefits of such a voice? If not, how might we be sensitive to existent ideologies of gender as we work to combat local and global social injustices?”
- Women's Studies 10A3: Women, Culture, Power. Prof. Shawna Ferris, McMaster University, Ontario


“The course aims to sharpen students' critical awareness of how gender operates in institutional and cultural contexts and in their own lives, and to give them an opportunity to imagine participating in social change.”
– Introduction to Women’s Studies (WS 240). Prof. Anne Hermann, University of Michigan


“The issues facing contemporary Canadian women - from struggles around body image to violence against women - will be explored, in terms of the intersecting cultural, political and economic systems which structure our lives, and in terms of female agency. A central emphasis will be on differences among women, and how our varied histories and experiences make women's studies both complex and egalitarian.”
– Introduction to Women’s Studies (WMNS 120). Prof. K. McKittrick, Queen's University, Ontario


such extremely important contemporary issues as sex discrimination and harassment, women's health, and developmental issues. In addition, the course will introduce students to the interdisciplinary fields of Women's and Gender Studies, out of which some of the most innovative and challenging developments in recent scholarship are arising. Emphasis will be placed on women's significant contributions to knowledge and culture, but we will also survey other areas of gender studies, including men's studies, family studies, and the study of sexuality. Central to the course will be an examination of personal narratives--memoirs, autobiographies, oral histories, ethnographies, photographs--and their relation to larger social issues.”
– Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies. Prof. Laurie Finke, Kenyon College

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What Is Women's & Gender Studies, Take 2: A Review by Sheetal Rawal (BA & MA English & Women's Studies)

"I think the best way for me to answer this question [“What is Women's (& Gender) Studies?] is to tell you about the introductory Women's Studies course (WS 020E) I took at the University of Western Ontario this past school year. Although some of the content and readings would change to suit a high school level, I feel that the themes and concepts and aims of such a course would remain similar.

"Generally speaking, our course took an interdisciplinary look at women in history, philosophy, education, literature, etc. across different time periods, cultures, and critical perspectives, as my fabulous professor Dr. KJ Verwaayen put it. The course stressed critical thinking and intelligent discussion, and always allowed space for intellectual disagreement. In fact, it seems that Women's Studies avoids some of the pitfalls that other areas of study sometimes fall into through its constant self-checking and self-critiquing.

"The beginning of our course focused on developing an understanding of gender and how it plays out in society. We discussed 'essentialist' and 'constructivist' theories of gender. We discussed gender stereotypes and socialization, and looked at some of their manifestations, for example in the English language. We were always encouraged to question the themes and issues at stake. One of the main possibilities a course like this holds for improving the educational experience of boys and girls alike is that it encourages taking a critical approach to all aspects of learning. The critical thinking skills built in an interdisciplinary course emphasizing gendered experience were invaluable to me in every other aspect of my schooling and wider life. Critical thinking is not a skill which comes easily, but it is one which, when cultivated, will serve students for the rest of their lives.

“Some of the subject based aspects of the course included a look at women’s history and embodied experiences, women’s invisible role in science, critiques of scientific sex-difference studies. We discussed the history and diversity of feminist theories and practice. We looked at liberal feminism, radical feminism, postmodern feminism, socialist feminism, 'third wave' feminism, and men in feminism (or femenism). We looked at the specific experiences and contexts of women with disabilities, lesbian women, aboriginal women, African American women and women of colour, third world women, intersexed people, working-class women, survivors of abuse. We discussed violence against women, eating disorders, and media representations of gender. We looked at male stereotypes and constructed masculinities. This is key, because the experiences of one gender definitely have a bearing on the experiences of another. Men and women do not exist separately, in a vacuum, and the social problems which affect one necessarily affect the other. We discussed homophobia as a weapon of sexism, class as feminist issue, motherhood and reproductive technologies. We also looked at the histories of women's movements in Canada.

“Readings for this course came from a wide variety of sources, including poetry, fiction, media based accounts of female experience, and landmark works on women written by men from Aristotle to Freud that put forth some very sexist and materially harmful theories. We read Kramer and Sprenger's The Malleus Maleficarum from 1486 which discusses woman's essentially evil nature, and was used to justify the killing of thousands of women as witches. The name of our project Miss G___ actually comes from one of the course readings, Clarke's Sex in Education; or, A Fair Chance for the Girls, from 1873.

“The diversity of the voices I encountered in this course that were grounded in common themes and struggles is what I found fascinating; that is, how the course managed to weave together so many different stories. The title of one of our readings, written by Cheryl Johnson- Odim on third world feminism, sums up Women's Studies for me: Common Themes, Different Contexts.

“Basically, the aim of my life-changing Introduction to Women’s Studies course was to make visible the invisible, make explicit the implicit messages women and men receive from external information sources, and to discuss how, why, when, where and by whom, and for whose benefit, definitions of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man have traditionally been constructed and changed over time. We hope to develop a course which can open up this possibility for a wider survey of students and at a younger age.”

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Is Women's & Gender Studies "for girls" only?

Contrary to what some people think, or what a certain 'high-up' bureaucrat at the Ministry called a course for girls, Women's & Gender Studies is for women, men, and everyone in between. As part of the backlash against anything that empowers women (like with saaaay, feminism), Women's & Gender Studies has sometimes been dismissed as a male-bashing fest. Women's & Gender Studies is not out to start Gender Wars: Venus vs. Mars..... though that would probably make a great Fox TV special. It's more interested in looking at a variety of topics while paying attention to gender, race, sexual orientation, and class. Many men take AND ENJOY (gasp!) Women's & Gender Studies courses, and find them eye-opening.

Do any other provinces in Canada have Women's & Gender Studies Classes?

Jay Harrison, a member of the Project in Kitchener-Waterloo, contacted the Ministries of Education of each province and territory in Canada, asking if their curricula included Women’s & Gender Studies courses, if they ever did, or if there were any plans to include Women’s & Gender Studies in their respective curriculum documents. What she found was that the rumblings of a Women’s & Gender Studies course are certainly not limited to this province.

Alberta Education has approved a locally-developed Women's Studies course (Women's Studies 35), which has been offered in one school jurisdiction in Alberta. Moreover, Alberta Education has just undertaken the implementation of a revised social studies program for all students in Alberta that includes "a focus on gender perspectives... to ensure that gender perspectives were included within the curriculum for Alberta students."

Though British Colombia does not have a provincial Women's & Gender Studies course, Women's & Gender Studies is offered under four, locally-developed "Board/Authority Authorized" courses (courses developed to cover areas not covered in the provincial curriculum), Women's Studies 11, Women's Studies 12, Gender and Society 12 and Gender Studies 12. Moreover, "gender issues are taken into consideration when developing all curriculum documents and also when evaluating learning resources to be used in schools to support provincial curricula.”

In New Brunswick, the Department of Education has approved a locally-developed grade 12 course entitled Women, Media and Cultures which is offered in one school in the province.

Here in Ontario, in lieu of provincial curricula, several schools have begun to offer locally- developed women's & gender studies courses. These include Parry Sound High School in Parry Sound, ON and Freemont Academy in Toronto, ON. Women's & Gender Studies courses have also been approved and are currently being developed (and scheduled to be offered in September 2007) at Sudbury Secondary School in Sudbury, ON and St. Patrick's High School in Sarnia, ON.

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From Women's Studies to Women's & Gender Studies

The Miss G__ Project recently revised the title of the course we've been demanding from Women's Studies to Women's and Gender Studies. It was not a quick or easy process, and after much discussion with stakeholders from all areas of the project and the province, we finalized the change late last year. For a further discussion of the Miss G__ Project's decision to make the switch from WS to WGS, please see our position paper (April 2007).

Suggested High-School Level Course Objectives

  • To develop an understanding of basic women's studies terms and concepts;
  • To examine the social construction of femininity and masculinity and power differences based on gender;
  • To integrate ideas and evidence from diverse disciplines and diverse points of view, including those of women who experience multiple forms of discrimination, such as women of color, working-class and poor women, women from nonwestern cultures, and lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered women;
  • To explore the interlocking natures of various kinds of prejudice and oppression, including sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and others; and
  • To examine what has been done and can still be done to work toward a better situation of gender equality etc.


Suggested Units and Topics of Study

These possible units could be developed in conjunction with the themes already investigated in locally developed courses such as the course developed by Shannon Mills at Parry Sound Secondary School. The Miss G__ Project envisions a dynamic, holistic, interactive, and experiential approach to learning activities, as well as a strong emphasis on group work.

Reading gender

  • Learning/unlearning gender: what is gender?
  • What is sexism? What is “equality”? Do we have it?
  • What is Women's & Gender Studies?
  • Discussions on transgender, intersex
  • Sexual difference, social constructions of femininity and masculinity, the problems of (and connections between) homophobia/heterosexism/heteronormativity, etc.

Bodies

  • Self-image
  • Relationships, sex and sexuality
  • Violence against women
  • Eating disorders
  • Representations of bodies in the media (students could conduct a media analysis project, watch the Jean Kilbourne film “Killing Us Softly”)

Institutions

  • Work and histories of women in the workplace, pay-equity, women and poverty
  • Law and legal issues affecting women around the world
  • Families, marriage, reproduction
  • Health care, children
  • Women in the global economy, social policy
  • GLBTQ issues (with a focus on Canadian institutions)
  • Activism and citizenship (students could research a 'women's issue' then write a letter to the appropriate elected representative, ministry, or even corporate body)

Education

  • What are(n't) we teaching/learning in literature, history, and other classes?
  • What does a feminist/woman-perspective reading of literature look like? (students could write a ‘feminist book report’)

Feminisms

  • What is feminism?
  • Examinations of how classism, racism, heterosexism etc. interact with sexism
  • History of Western feminisms - 1st, 2nd and 3rd Wave; feminisms around the world (including Black feminisms, Islamic feminisms, other non-Western narratives of women’s movements)
  • Global feminisms (with an emphasis on pluralism), lesbian feminisms, liberal feminism, socialist feminism, etc.
  • Canadian feminist icons – significance of these histories for women today
  • Future possibilities for women’s movement(s)?

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