For years, the literary canons taught in most high schools were the exclusive province of dead (and sometimes live) white men. I went to high school in the 1960s, and I read about male protagonists who did “masculine” things. They went to war (Hemingway), found a giant pearl (Steinbeck), flew airplanes (St. Exupery), and killed an old pawnbroker woman to prove that there is no God (Doestoyevsky), to give just a few examples. I remember that along the way these authors did a considerable amount of philosophizing. It was fascinating, but it was all from a male perspective.
The effect this immersion in male literature had on my still-budding consciousness was powerful, though at the time I did not fully understand the extent of it. First, I got the message that it was a man’s world. Second, I bought into the values of that world. Finally, my sense of myself as a creative person with something to say was not validated. My impression was that men had adventures and wrote about them, while women stayed home and performed boring, domestic tasks that were unworthy of being written about. I didn’t consider every-day life as being sacred, let alone worthy of being documented. It wasn’t until I got to college that I became aware of how female writers and artists often bring the domestic and feminine into the domain of writing and art. Reading Virginia Woolf was a revelation. I am sorry that in restricting my unit to American writers that I am not able to include her work.
Fortunately, today we read and teach a more democratic sampling of literature in high school, including that of female authors. We study works by writers of virtually every ethnic group, race and sex. Maya Angelou and Richard Wright are likely to be on the same curriculum as Emerson and Thoreau. As a result of being exposed to this diversity, our students’ lives are enriched and their identities affirmed. Perhaps more important, students are now presented with more points of view, which greatly broadens their perspective.
But, despite the advent of multiculturalism and gender diversity in today’s high school English curricula, there is still a great need for adolescent girls (and boys) to be exposed to more texts that deal with female-related issues. Anorexia, bulimia, self-mutilation, drug addiction, and other disorders are becoming an epidemic among young women, who feel pressured to conform. What’s more, at my school I have witnessed far too many verbal and physical altercations between girls, which were caused by competition over boys. Blood has literally been shed in our hallways over such issues. This leads me to think that as women -- and as a society -- we really haven’t come such a long way.
In Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher discusses the fact that our society is “girl poisoning” because of the implicitly and explicitly sexist messages of today’s movies, television shows, music and advertising. I believe it is my obligation as an educator to point out these toxic messages to both boys and girls. I also want to counteract some of the negative cultural messages Pipher writes about by presenting alternative points of view. The literature I have chosen does both. Even if some girls -- and boys -- don’t connect with the ideas presented in the texts we read, they will be exposed to information they may relate to at another point in their lives. And, it is important to remember that students are being introduced to great literature.
The demographics of the magnet arts high school where I teach make a unit on women’s literature highly appropriate. For the past eight years, the school’s enrollment has been made up of approximately 75 percent girls. (This year, the percentage of girls is 74.8.) The students are chosen by lottery, so there is no sex bias in the selection process. That leads me to surmise that more girls than boys are attracted to an arts-centered educational environment. The multicultural aspect of the literature I am using is also fitting for my school, whose students come not only from the city of New Haven but also from some 15 surrounding suburbs. The school is unique in New Haven because its student body is quite ethnically and racially diverse (55 percent African-American; 28 percent Caucasian; 16 percent Latino; and 1 percent other). These broad categories, of course, include ethnic groups too numerous to list. I have taught youngsters who are Chicano, Puerto Rican, Dominican, West Indian, Japanese-American, Jewish, and Muslim, to name just a few groups represented.
Even though girls make up the majority of my school’s student body, I nevertheless need to address the argument that a unit on women’s literature will leave out the boys. My answer to this concern is that both girls and boys will relate to the literature we read because it deals with the quest for identity, independence and self-expression. These are issues that are important to both male and female adolescents because of the unique stage they are going through in their social and emotional development. Moreover, both boys and girls should be able to relate to the universal themes (and aspects of human nature) found in the texts we read. These themes include guilt, anger, revenge, frustration, and regret. Finally, the most compelling argument for a unit on women’s literature is that the boys who are sitting alongside the girls in English class are the girls’ friends, brothers, cousins and future husbands. What affects the girls will indirectly affect them, too. Therefore, the boys should be aware of the issues and potential problems their female counterparts may face.