The first simple, yet important, step is to define the significant, recurring terms of “feminism” and “dissent.” For the purpose of this unit, I am defining “feminism” as the empowerment of women. Unfortunately, the word “feminism,” is widely misunderstood and has bad connotations. However, the concept must enter into our dialogue in class because feminism directly correlates with the idea of dissent. Without the need for empowerment, there would be no need for women’s literature of dissent.
To define “dissent,” I looked to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition, for inspiration. The dictionary defines “dissent,” when used as a noun, to mean a difference of opinion. When used as a verb, the word means “to withhold assent,” or “to differ in opinion.” “Dissent” is close in meaning to the word, “protest.” However, I consider “protest” to be the stronger of the two words.
In the literature I have chosen, the female authors express dissent -- and protest -- in a variety of ways. They make their points directly and indirectly, in double meanings, and sometimes with irony and even humor. For example, in some works, such as Alice Walker’s poem, “Expect Nothing,” dissent is expressed as anger and disappointment. Walker ironically exhorts her readers to “wish for nothing larger than your own small heart,” and to “tame wild disappointment.”
It is not enough, though, to merely define feminism and dissent. Students need to be exposed to background information on the women’s movement and its evolution over the past century and a half. Unlike many of us baby boomers, today’s teenagers were not alive to witness the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, during which women fought for economic and reproductive rights. Many contemporary teenagers know nothing of the struggle women waged to earn the rights they now have, including the ability to vote. (When I mention in class that women had previously been barred from voting, students look at me incredulously.) So, I will incorporate historical elements into my unit by interspersing readings on women’s history, from the suffrage movement in the mid-1800s through the second and third waves of feminism. We will explore topics such as how and when the women’s movement started, who were its leaders and who made up its rank and file. We also will look at the movement’s philosophies, goals and tactics, as well as the role the movement played in shaping American culture and society.
The primary texts from which I will extract readings and information include History of Women in the United States by Nancy F. Cott, The Women’s Liberation Movement in America by Kathleen C. Berkeley, and The Body Project, An Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg. These books will give us insights into how women were viewed in the past, which will help us understand many of the works we will read. For example, during the Victorian era, when one of our texts, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” was published, “respectable” women were considered to be angels of domesticity. Knowing this is essential to interpreting the meaning of the story. Another benefit of adding an historical component to my unit is that my students take a U.S. history class at the same time they take my class. Knowing more about women’s history should give students an added perspective on U.S. history, and visa versa.
Kathleen Berkeley’s book is particularly helpful because it contains a timeline of the major events of the women’s movement -- from the first Woman’s Rights Convention in 1848, to the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 (voting rights), to the first National Women’s Liberation Conference in 1968, to the Supreme Court Decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973, which overturned anti-abortion statutes. Other events noted on the timeline are the formation of important women’s organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women (1896), the National Organization for Women (1966), and the National Black Feminist Organization (1973).
All of the literature I have chosen for this unit could be categorized under the umbrella of “the literature of women’s dissent,” or “feminist literature.” However, for the sake analysis, organization and clarity, I have grouped these writings according to more specific sub-themes. We will spend a considerable amount of time comparing and contrasting texts, both within and among these sub-categories. Again, these activities will help students prepare for the CAPT because they necessitate developing interpretations, making connections, and taking a critical stance.
I have identified three themes that this unit will address. They are:
1. Feeling trapped by traditional roles and society’s expectations.
2. Anger, which is either projected outward or inward as self-hated.
3. The quest for identity, power and a voice.
Many of the texts could fit into more than one category, and students will have a chance at the end of the unit to make their own connections among the works of literature we read. But, for now, I will assign each piece of literature to a thematic subgroup for the sake of organization. To explain how I will deal with each theme, I have prepared the following examples, which do not include all of the literature we will study.
“Free, free, free!” says Mrs. Mallard, over and over again, when she learns of her husband’s death in Kate Chopin’s, “The Story of an Hour,” which was published in the early 1900s. An entire century has passed, but women's need for independence has not. Mrs. Mallard's situation is as relevant now as it was a hundred years ago. Today, it is still not uncommon for a woman to ask her husband for permission to buy something, even if the woman has her own job. Mrs. Mallard does not have a difficult relationship with her husband, who is portrayed as being kind. Yet her husband’s death makes her realize that she felt restricted by her marriage, and she begins to look forward to “living for herself.” To desire for independence is a theme that recurs in other works we will read during this portion of the unit. These works include “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a short story by the early feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is suffering from post-partum depression. This young wife gradually loses her sanity when her physician husband confines her to her bedroom to do nothing but rest. She is not allowed to write or take part in useful activities (a nurse is caring for her baby). With no outlet for her intelligence or creativity, she begins to focus on the wallpaper. She thinks she sees a woman trapped behind the paper and begins ripping at it to free the woman -- a brilliant metaphor for the plight of the narrator. This is an example of a story that can be looked at on at least two levels. There is the simple, first-person account of the narrator, which chronicles the deterioration of her mental health. Then, there is the powerful, cautionary message about what can happen to a woman if all outlets for creativity and self-expression are taken away from her.
Adrienne Rich's poem, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," which was mentioned earlier, deals with a similar theme of being trapped. Aunt Jennifer creates needlepoint pictures of tigers, while working under "the massive weight of Uncle's wedding band." This poem epitomizes how women are restricted by the patriarchal society in which they live, symbolized the heavy ring. Yet Rich, a more modern writer than Chopin and Gilman, presents a glimmer of hope. Aunt Jennifer's creations live on after her death. Her creativity has given her a kind of immortality.
Anger, projected outward and inward
Anger is a salient theme in women’s literature, and there is no dearth of texts that focus on it. One of my favorites is Zora Neale Hurston’s “Black Death,” in which a mother exacts revenge on her daughter’s seducer. Hurston describes how the protagonist, Mrs. Boger, is transformed by her anger into a “female tiger cut by the chisel of shame.” When Mrs. Boger is about to visit a voodoo doctor, Hurston writes that “All Africa awoke in her blood.” She does not allow herself or her daughter, Docia, to remain a victim. She reaches back to her African-American heritage and derives power from it.
For this part of the unit, we’ll read “Trifles,” by Susan Glaspell, a one-act play in which one woman’s revenge also plays a central role. In addition, the play is about two other women who withhold key police evidence from their husbands. The women are angry because their husbands have not taken them seriously and have teased them about “worrying over trifles.” Ironically, the women have actually solved a murder by piecing together things their husbands consider to be insignificant -- the details of daily life. The play suggests that by withholding the evidence, the women are not only getting back at their husbands, but also protecting their neighbor, who murdered her abusive husband. So, in addition to the theme of anger, there is a message about sisterhood.
“Black Death” and “Trifles” are tales in which the characters’ anger is aimed at others, but some of the texts we’ll read deal with women’s depression and self-hatred, which are caused by anger turned inward. Included in those texts will be at least one Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus,” which is about the poet’s suicide attempts. Tillie Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” is another example of anger turned inward. But, in this case, the anger has been transformed into guilt, as a mother feels anguish over not having been able to properly nurture her daughter. Because of Olsen’s own experience trying to work, raise children and write, she was concerned that women don’t have enough time to incorporate creativity into their lives.
In “I Stand Here Ironing,” the narrator -- because of numerous other responsibilities -- neglects the daughter who turns out to be the most gifted and creative of all her children. I believe the daughter symbolizes the mother’s (and all women’s) creativity. In describing her daughter, the narrator laments that her gift “has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing.” This statement could apply to the mother’s situation, too, since she is not engaged in creative activity, but rather is standing and ironing, a taxing and mundane chore that is often done by women for others in their family.
The quest for identity, power and a voice
Another significant theme in the literature of women’s dissent is the lack of power and identity that many women experience, as well as a woman’s need to be heard. Some of the texts we will read address these themes with eloquence and authority. For example, in her poem, “A Work of Artifice,” Marge Piercy compares women to bonsai trees, which are pruned to stay tiny. Like the girls Pipher talks about in Saving Ophelia, their growth is truncated. Although Piercy isn’t Asian, this poem uses Eastern images and metaphors, such as the bonsai tree and foot binding. It is therefore a perfect introduction to our reading and discussion of “No Name Woman,” the first chapter of Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel, The Woman Warrior.
Like “A Work of Artifice,” “No Name Woman” deals with themes of powerlessness and loss of identity. The narrator of Woman Warrior recounts the story of her aunt in China, who as a young woman drowned herself and her baby in the family well. She had given birth to an illegitimate child and had become an outcast and scapegoat, both in the eyes of her family and the entire village. As a result, she was stripped of her lineage and identity. She was told by her family that they wish she had never been born, and her name was never again spoken, even after her death. She had no power, except to take her own life and that of her baby. The narrator of Woman Warrior notes that in the old China women did not have free will and that “some man had commanded her [the aunt] to lie with him and be his secret evil.”
Another work that addresses this theme is Kate Chopin’s short story, “Desiree’s Baby,” in which a foundling’s unclear ancestry and lack of racial pedigree comes back to haunt her as a grown woman and ultimately leads to her undoing. As is the case with the No Name Woman in The Woman Warrior, it is only Desiree’s connection to her adoptive family and, later, to her husband, which gives her an identity. When she loses this connection, she loses her life.
How we will work as a class
No matter which class I am teaching, I take the approach that my students and I are a community of learners. So, my plan for this unit is to avoid giving lectures and to take students through carefully guided, student-centered explorations of the literature. These will include close readings and interpretations of the texts, whole-class and small-group discussions, and the writing and sharing of reader responses. Our main underlying activity will be to analyze texts for their deeper meaning.
After we have thoroughly read, discussed and written about each of the three subgroups of literature, we will take a more global approach and examine how all of the texts we’ve read fit under the rubric of dissent. We will compare and contrast texts, both within the subgroups and in the literature as a whole. Students will discuss and write about which texts they related to and what made them connect with them. Students also will write about which texts they think are most thematically alike, setting aside my previous categorizing of the literature. This assignment will enable students to make their own connections among texts from the entire unit, which will encourage analytical thinking. And, another topic for writing and discussion will be for students to decide which stories they consider to be good literature. This, of course, is an important CAPT question, which cannot be neglected.
Students will work individually and cooperatively in small groups. The culminating assignment will be to write a five- to seven-page paper about one of the authors whose work we studied. The paper will contain information about the writer and her life. It also will include an analysis of which message or messages of dissent the writer puts forth, as well as what remedies, if any, her work suggests or implies. Students will be asked to tie in the details of the author’s life with the issues the author writes about, if a connection can be made. Students will share their papers with the class, and we will discuss them as a way of providing closure and cementing the knowledge students have gained.