I recently asked one of my professors how they thought that a second wave perspective on feminism might see a fourth wave perspective. My professor responded disappointingly saying that to even answer my question I would have to prove to her that there is a fourth wave. I should have raised my hand and said that I was all the proof I had immediately accessible. However instead, I was shocked into silence. I could not believe that in a women’s studies class that seems on the surface interested in promoting inclusive ideas and recognizing the varying identity of her students a professor would dismiss an entire movement built on those principles. In that moment I felt erased as I often feel in women’s studies class set in a second wave mind frame. I believe that it is important for a new academic understanding of feminism that is reflective of feminism practiced in the real world. Within our halls of higher learning it often seems that our views are outdated, wrapped in uninclusive ideas and built on a resolve to reject new developments in the feminist movement. I believe that as our discussions on feminism stand now, we are leaving out people of color, queer and trans individuals, and we often continue to teach texts that promote ethnocentrism, classism, ableism, heteronormativity, and white supremacy.
bell hooks writes that “feminism is for everybody,” but I argue that in acadamia that is rarely the case. Too often queer people, people of color, trans people, disabled people, etc are brought up as a unit within a curriculum rather than as an integrated part of the curriculum. As a queer identified genderqueer I often feel like my identity is left out entirely in my courses. More concerning still I that if genderqueers or pansexual queers are mentioned it is often allocated to myself or other students of those identities to provide the definition to our peers of what those identities mean. Rarely are the complications of a marginalized identity fleshed out even in my upper division classes. Rather it is felt that the mention of these identities existence is more than adequate. The result is an introduction of marginalized identities that either under represents or misrepresents them. I often watch as people of color are put into the same uncomfortable position wherein they are required to speak for their entire community and explain to a curious class how it is for “insert identity here” people in “insert situation here”.
Instead of students being put into the position of sole educator in matters of their own identities, professors need to be more conscious and informed so that they can be the ones to provide the information. Otherwise, these discussions are spotlighting, and likely to result in the student feeling put on the spot and the subsequent information may not be the most beneficial to a class’ understanding. This is not to say that students should not be welcomed into the dialogue to discuss their personal perspectives and add their own identities into the discussion. However, students should not be held as primarily responsible for the education of their peers. Otherwise what could have been a productive class discussion around inclusivity turn into a sideshow with those of marginalized identities under the gaze of a class of spectators? No one should feel like a freak on display in a classroom.
In discussing the lack of welcoming and inclusivity of people of color in feminist movements, bell hooks discusses women of color being invited to discussions, but only for show. The women of color were not asked to contribute to the discussion unless asked to provide a tokenist response now and again to give the meetings the flavor of inclusivity. This self-satisfying approach of bourgeois white women from second wave feminism is echoed today with the continued exclusion of women of color and queer individuals. It is not uncommon for my courses to include a unit on people of color, or on homosexuals. These discussions rarely go deeper than to define certain terms or to relate the status of people of color in American society to class issues. The danger here is that if these identities are not given a proper voice in the classroom students either neglect to consider them or find themselves making false assumptions about those who claim these identities.
In my experience, when suggestions are made about ways to create more inclusive and comfortable classroom environments these suggestions are largely ignored. The argument is often that there is not enough time, or that a course is only meant to cover the basics. If this is the excuse at a 4000 level course, I ask you, when is feminism 201 which will make space for these identities to be explored? Currently, I feel the impression one is left with after taking many of these courses is that marginalized identities are interesting side note which have no place in the larger movement of feminism. Queer people, disabled people, people of color, intersex people, trans people, etc, are too minority to be worth spending valuable class time considering. I believe this mentality translates into research, presentations, and conversations outside of the classroom. The other category I overflowing with unrepresented identities begging for a voice, but the same curriculum, focusing on the same middle and upper class white women and men is regurgitated in the classroom. Second wave feminism reigns supreme, unless third wave temporarily takes the spotlight largely in order to be degraded as raunch culture, female chauvinism, and the death of feminism. Only in a handful of my courses have I heard mention of fourth wave feminism and in even fewer has it actually been discussed.
It is interesting to me that there is an extreme rejection of conversations around the fourth wave in many of my classes. As a self-identified fourth wave-feminist, I see this dismissal as a further example of ways in which certain topics are left out or defamed in my courses. I see fourth wave feminism as a movement that is queer inclusive as well as oppression and discrimination aware. It focuses around discussions of privilege and ethnocentrism, seeks to revalue femininity and to allow space for gender expressions that do not meet the standards of hegemony. In many ways, I see the fourth wave as inclusive of second wave ideals. Rather than a kind of female chauvinism, the fourth wave seeks for individuals to become informed about systems of patriarchy and to become empowered to make choices about their identity. Fourth wave is not wholly individualistic, but recognizes that different communities have different needs and goals and perspectives and therefore each need their own agency. Fourth wave works as a network of allied communities who work in tandem to buoy each other up while maintaining personal dignity and control over their own movements.
When my professors tell me that this movement does not exist I feel out casted by people who I thought were my allies. Reading Betty Friedan and thinking about how she believes that the key to ending the problem with no name is for women to go back to school and get work hard to get jobs that fulfill them reminds me of this situation. Friedan’s idea sounds amazing on the surface, but if you read what she has to say you see that she is suggesting that women achieve this not by asking their husbands (heterosexism,) to aid in the housework, but by hiring another woman to do it. This completely overlooks the situation that the housekeeper finds herself in by how it privileges the suburban housewife’s problems and dismisses the maid’s. One woman is receiving attention, is being elevated. Her problems are being discussed and analyzed and a solution is found. For women of color, queer women, women with disabilities the conversation is not to be had. These women are still women are they not? Where is their movement? “Feminism is for everyone,” that’ what bell hooks said. However she knows that feminism with its amorphous definition left all sorts of loopholes for women to oppress other women unchecked.
We must all be careful that we do not repeat this history. We need to be as progressive a movement as we claim to be. A movement that recognizes our different communities sees that we may have different needs and does not gallop in on our white horse to save the day. Instead, sometimes the best kind of activism is staying home, educating yourself, helping to educate others, letting communities have their own voice and agency, but not perpetuating the idea that marginalized means unworthy of class time. Rather than a unit on homosexuality, people of color, trans people, people with disabilities, etc, we need to be incorporating those perspectives as much as possible into our established curriculum.
In order to create more inclusive classrooms, I suggest starting with the material. Choosing authors from a multitude of backgrounds, while making a conscious effort to avoid tokenism is a great way to get voices in the classroom from marginalizes identities. Reading the text will add to student comprehension of concepts and will provide a subtle way of getting often silenced voices heard. Talking about the backgrounds of the authors a professor chooses to include helps students understand where those authors are coming from, helps reveal bias, and can make the text seem more credible. Another good step to a non-spotlighting, inclusive classroom is to invite diverse speakers. Having students do some background on the subject to prepare will help students stay engaged the day of the speaker and productive questions that increase the depth of comprehension are likely to come up. Allowing a speaker to talk about terminology and marginalized identities can have twofold benefit in that students will learn the material from someone who has lived the experiences discussed and no one from within the class will be forced to make themselves vulnerable as they disclose themselves to their peers. Also, it would be beneficial for students who share some of the experiences to feel like they have a voice even if they are not the one speaking. It helps build a sense of community and acceptance as well to see someone who shares part of your identity welcomed into the space as a respected authority. In fact, having a speaker that an otherwise quiet student has similarities with may help to open up that student and increase their participation as they become more comfortable after watching how the classroom receives the things discussed. Students often have something to say if they feel comfortable enough to say it and this is a good opportunity to make that space.
There are more ways than those I have suggested to make a more inclusive classroom. Ultimately the classroom climate has a lot to do with a professor’s willingness to have difficult discussions at the possible risk of scheduled content being briefly delayed. These conversations are important. Educators are instructing new and experienced faces of feminism, but there is much we can all learn from each other. It is a disservice to let those opportunities go unclaimed. We need to see over the top of our second wave lenses and realize that the movement did not die. It carries on in the real world and more people are joining all the time. They are welcome, we are welcome, we can make the space out there in the real world. It is time that we made an effort to make that space in the classroom.