Within the scope of this unit, the required background knowledge can be broken down into two major areas: (1) The Evolution of the Fight for Gender Equality and (2) Teaching Practices. In the first section, the history of the power dynamics between men and women in regards to the fight for equality is discussed starting with hunter-gatherer societies to modern day American politics. In the second section, key teaching practices which will be used in this unit will be dissected. Once this knowledge is unpacked, the teacher will be ready to teach the unit.
The Evolution of the Fight for Gender Equality
Over millennia, many groups have been marginalized on the basis of gender, race, religion, and ethnicity among other labels. Despite the repression, most groups have fought for their rights to be free with some achieving their goals and others failing. In this unit of study, we will specifically examine how women have risen up to regain their own power in search of equality. While not all my students identify as female, all of my students understand the desire to be considered equal. They know that society has a way of elevating some while keeping others down. It is through this study of strong women writers that my students will develop their critical reading and writing skills when it comes to author’s voice while cultivating their own voice.
Over the past hundred years, cis women have redefined what it is means to be female and trans women and men have fought to be able to identify as their true selves. In the process, cis males have struggled to develop a definition that keeps up with the evolution of their counterparts. It is important for my students to understand the complexity and intersectionality between gender, race, and culture. In studying a writer’s work, they must study the author in order to unpack some of the issues and history surrounding the issues in which the writers are speaking to.
Prior to the Women’s Rights Movement of the 19th Century
Historically, large sections of the male population have used their power to stifle women. In early hunter gather tribes, men and women were able to split their duties. In examining these cultures, researchers have found that women thrived because they were able to care for their child while gathering vegetation for their sustenance. In fact, most of the protein consumed by people of this time was not the meat that was hunted by man but from the yield of female foraging. In this culture, women were able to hold their own without much support from men. As time passed, society changed and with the advent of the simple plow the world evolved into a society dictated by male focused agriculture. The plow required a level of brute strength that was more suited to males leaving women with much less power than they previously possessed. 8
As society progressed, women were able to regain some rights. During the industrial revolution, women like Mary Wollstonecraft spoke out against the tyranny of the ruling gender. Wollstonecraft made the argument that women had a significant role as they were the ones who were educating the children, who are the future of nations. This led to her publishing “The Vindication of the Rights of Women.” 9 While early efforts were not successful, these actions laid the groundwork for the work that would be done in the centuries that would follow. As industrialization made the need for physical strength less attractive, women were entering the workforce. It was through labor that women were starting to regain some of the previous freedom they previously enjoyed during the time of the hunter-gatherer culture.
Entering the Political Scene
In the 19th century, women started to leverage their economic position into political agency. As women found themselves more involved in political movements such anti-abolitionism, women started to leverage this political knowledge into action towards achieving gender equality. 10
While white women often found some power within this movement, women of color often had issues important to them overlooked to the point that they were often regulated to the back of the line, metaphorically and physically. Instead, individual women of color, such as Ida B. Wells, achieved more power through writing, specifically journalism.
Ida B. Wells was a staunch advocate for advancing rights for African Americans through activism and journalism. In 1884, Wells purchased a first-class railway ticket only to be told she would have to be seated in the car designated for African Americans. When she refused, Wells was arrested. When the case went to trial, the local court found in favor of Wells, while, later, the supreme court rejected the ruling of the lower court. During this time, Wells began to write about her case. It was through writing that she continued to explore her activism and develop her voice and political power. Wells would eventually operate her own paper which she used to further exert her political expression. Later, Ida B. Wells would ask her readers to question issues such as the funding of African American schools, the widespread practice of lynching, and the role of gender equality in the political field. With her work with the National Equal Rights League, Wells fought for a woman’s right to vote. 11
The suffragist movement continued to work towards its goal into the 20th century. During this time, they faced several hurdles. Despite finding allies, they were unable to move their work to a large enough political stage successfully. In the end, however, the suffragists were triumphant. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed in the United States finally bestowing women with the right to vote. This was one step closer to true equality.
Since the ratification of this amendment, the fight for equality took on new directions as well as new issues developing. In order to see women achieve true equality, the women’s movement evolved into seeking the right to gain control over their own bodies as well as the right to equal pay. While the first battle resulted in the Roe v. Wade decision, the second battle was less than successful. The fight for the passage of the Equal Rights Act (ERA) was met with resistance by many including some groups of women. This conflict highlighted some of the issues that had developed outside as well as inside the women’s movement. In trying to achieve rights for the majority, sometimes smaller divisions of women (women of color, women in poverty, homosexual women) often saw their needs put to the back.
Equal Rights Act & Gender Equality for All
The Equal Rights Act was born out of the work done by the women had achieved the right to vote. This was not enough. In the decades following, women such as Alice Paul began to commit to the work required in order to improve rights for everyone. Paul drafted an early version of what would become the Equal Rights Act. In 1972, the bill finally made it through both houses and was up for individual state ratification. It was at this stage the bill died. In order for it to go forward, the bill needed to be adopted by all 50 states in a seven-year time span. This did not occur. 12
The main contention of the ERA was to establish true equality as it has been established in the 15th and 19th amendments. 13 The passage of the ERA would have not only have benefited women, but also men. While historically men have maintained power, the power dynamic between men and women has shifted over time. The technological revolution altered the workplace and the skills required to be successful in that environment. While women do struggle to get to the top, it is being shown that the gap between the men at the top and the men at the bottom is growing14. As a result, serious social issues have developed among men as a result.
In 2015, men made up 93% of the US prison population. Internationally men make up 79% of the all murder victims and 66% of the successful suicides.15 Men in power certainly benefit, but the men at the bottom are struggling to cope in the modern world. It is important that, in order to cope, men and women are both financially and politically escalated. It is important to look at how we are educating people in order to better prepare them for the world they are entering.
Engaging middle school students in writing is typically a difficult task. It’s the time of the class when students suddenly need to use the bathroom. In particular, my students struggle with this. One of the reasons is they don’t see the value in it the way that Roxane Gay speaks about in “Confessions of a Bad Feminist.” In her article “Self Directed Writing: Giving Voice to Student Writers,” Kim Brian Lovejoy explains what I see as the root of my problem. At the start of the article, Kim asks herself, and in essence all teachers, “whether I have taken the time to connect with students’ lives, hear their stories, understand their frustrations, and discover what each brings to the classroom.”16 While I consider myself very good at knowing my students through daily conversations, I realize I do not use writing to promote this connection. Lovejoy suggests the solution to this issue is self-directed writing.
Self-directed writing is a multi-step writing process where students are asked to first to generate a form of pre-writing called expressive writing and then to be provided an opportunity at a later date to develop that writing into one of three types of writing: mature expressive, transactional, or poetic.
At the initial expressive stage, the student is generating writing for themself. Self directed writing is a chance for students to say what they have background knowledge on in a way they feel most comfortable. This includes the possibility of allowing students to write in their home language. Joan Wynn writes about the importance of not making one language superior to another. When doing this we give white students a higher pass. She feels it is critical that conversations are built around the variance in language and celebrating it.17 It is why it is important to allow students to utilize their home language at this stage rather than focusing on the formal elements of writing.
With the initial expressive writing, students are given more flexibility in their writing choices. To start with, students generate a topic list on their own, which will be shared with the class. During the sharing phase, a class list of topics is complied and students are then encouraged to either keep their initial topic or choose a more intriguing one from the list. Self directed writing’s expressive stage differs from freewriting in that it isn’t timed and it isn’t constant. Its meant to be a calm writing experience, but with the idea that this is clearly a draft intended for their use and doesn’t necessarily have to be completed.
This stage is not a one-time occurrence. Students are provided the opportunity to complete initial expressive writing assignments multiple times throughout the unit in order to build a large portfolio of work at the various stages. When students have the opportunity to choose what work they will expand upon, students will then share work. Students should self-select the piece they are sharing. Then, they revise it; a first draft shouldn’t be shared. The purpose of discussion is for students to ask each other questions about the work in order to stimulate revision. 18
Prior to this the students have to work on the second step of the self directed writing. Once they have several expressive writing pieces, they should choose one to explore further in one of three forms. The first form is mature expressive writing that is similar to the initial in that it is still mostly focused on the writer. Where it differs is that is in the form which can be a letter, a diary entry, or a journal, for example. The second form is transactional writing which requires more evidence and typically appears in the form of a editorial or argument among others. The final form is poetic writing where the student is allowed to be creative and develop a poem, play, or story. 19
At the midway point and the end, students should be provided the opportunity to reflect on the process describing to the teacher what is and isn’t working as well as how they feel about the process. This allows the students to take more ownership of the process and their writing. Also, to help with ownership, it is the student who decides what they are going to share, how it is going to be submitted, and what is going to be graded in the final publishing stage. There should still be evidence of the other work, but the summative assessment would be just about the work that the student has chosen.