Back in the 1970’s, I would not have believed that women in 2020 would still face sexual violence, harassment at work, and that economic and political equality is still a dream. There is still a shameful lag in women’s political representation in our country, a shameful wage divide, a shameful continuation of violence against women, and a continuing struggle for societal equality for females. COVID-19 exposed the shocking level of unpaid labor performed by women in our society5. It is estimated that in 2020, American women performed 1.5 trillion dollars of necessary work such as childcare, elder care, shopping, cleaning, and cooking that no one counts as part of the economy. Globally, this balloons to 10.9 trillion dollars6. During COVID-19, research began to highlight the bold fact that women do more housework while working full-time, then the men they live with7.
I teach in an urban school in New Haven, Connecticut. Most of my students are from marginalized families living below the poverty line. Many families are refugees or immigrants. Our school is open and welcoming to students who identify as LGBTQ, and it educates severely disabled students. Due to our location close to Yale University, we also have a small population of affluent student from academically enriched backgrounds. This unique environment often reveals a generous human capacity for empathy, although the greater world is not so inclusive. Many of my marginalized students were themselves essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many got sick, or had family members who were sick.
Is there room, or value, in teaching literature from the past at all? During a time where literature majors at university are rapidly declining, and universities are beginning to eliminate this degree altogether, it is important for high school teachers to draw students back in to what once was called “the canon” of literature, and not only because these works are artistically excellent. Art embodies the human soul, it conveys human wisdom and truth, and it is a powerful catalyst that can effectively change attitudes, and inspire social justice. It is also important because these works are reflected in our modern culture – in art, law, music, history – and public school students should not always fall behind private school students in this knowledge.
Ancient and medieval literature portrays women characters who are intelligent, shrewd, and capable of gaining power through realpolitik maneuvers, while holding few legal or economic cards. The power cards they do hold, and wield, are moral and sexual, social and practical, physical and reproductive, and they have strength in resilience. A person’s power is not something anyone can take away, and these stories are inspirational reminders for every marginalized person.
When women are oppressed, society throws away half of its human capital and loses valuable resources of innovation, creativity, and potential to advance civilization. This happens with all forms of discrimination. I have been framing issues about racial and gender equity as issues of human justice for as long as I’ve taught. Teenagers as a whole understand social constraints more often than adults. It is a perfect time to nurture insight into a lifetime of fighting for human rights. Tapping into literature that portrays women as strong, wise, empowered, courageous, crafty, and resilient in the face of oppression is an inspiration for all.
This unit will strive to create lessons that will help students see that women, as marginalized people, retained powerful roles in society that often sought to silence them, and that pandemics such as the one we are experiencing as I write this, have been moments of empowerment. To continue this struggle, it is important that young women – and men – realize that all people have power and worth; we should not need a war or a plague to see this, but perhaps we can all find enlightenment from the one that is upon us.