It was a typical day in my large lecture class. I'm a history major, but this class was from a different program of study, one I was not too familiar with, but a subject I was interested in all the same.
My professor was in the middle of a lecture when a student piped up. She asked why we weren't looking at women's contributions to the field. The class was silent for a moment until our teacher explained that there simply weren't that many. The lecture continued until the girl raised her hand again and explained that she just Googled women in that field during the relevant time period, and there were at least 20 results that came up from her first search. When faced with this challenge, the professor explained that there were indeed some women who were involved in the field, but they were not influential to our subject of study, and therefore are not, essentially, worth the time to look into.
Days passed. I wrote to a former teacher and expressed to her my belated thanks that she had included narratives of women and other marginalized groups in her class, and explained what was occurring in my lecture class.
Noticing the concern that his students expressed, my professor offered the class a vote to see if we wanted to have a day devoted to women in the subject. About a week later, the final results were in — and it failed, with about two-thirds of the class voting against such a lecture. My professor had, so far, only briefly mentioned one woman who was involved in the field, giving her a discussion that lasted no longer than couple of minutes. On one of the final days of class, however, he discussed one female at half-an-hour’s length.
After that class, I talked with some of my friends and expressed what I believe to be important — that we start taking a holistic look at these subjects. I understand that the women in this field were not influential. Part of it has to do with the time period in which we are studying. Women simply did not have the opportunity to get involved in this field — another issue in itself — and those who managed to find themselves in it could not achieve the great success and accomplishments of their male counterparts, for a variety of societal reasons. But what is wrong with acknowledging what they did produce, whether or not they were “influential"? Isn’t there something there that we can learn, if only for context and understanding of a time period? My friends listened and supported my position. They encouraged me to go to my professor and talk to him.
I was nervous. I’m not a confrontational person, and I’ve never been one of the students in my classes to speak up about this sort of thing. I knew that if I talked about it, I would cry. But I realized that those women — and everyone who was part of a marginalized population — deserve to be remembered for what accomplishments they were able to make in spite of their struggles. I knew that this was my moment, this was my time. The next day, I came up to the professor and asked him if I could stop by his office to discuss women in the subject. He looked a little surprised, but said yes.
I walked into his office and told him that I would have loved to have studied women alongside the men we were studying. I asked him how he chose which people to study.
It was a rational, civil discussion, but I cried the whole time. He said, "I can see you're passionate about this.”
I said that, "if we treat women as a separate issue, we perpetuate the dominant narrative that exists today." And there are so many issues that could be fixed if we can learn to liberate ourselves from the current mindset.
He said that his approach is to look at the influential people. He said that he didn’t want to study women simply because they were women — a valid point, in my opinion. And he said that it's not worth our time to look at the very tiny percentage of women involved in the field because that was simply the reality of it. He believes life isn't fair, so he is just teaching to that reality.
I said I could see his point, that that was indeed the reality of it, but again, that only maintains the dominant narrative and affects today. He said he could see that I was trying to give a voice to the voiceless, but he is trying to focus on a group of elite men who had influence in their field.
I told him that I thought it would be valuable to look at just the lives and experiences of everyone during the time period — for context and for learning. Those women have contributions that can map onto the topics and themes we’re learning and would offer a richer experience and understanding.
He said that if I'm this passionate about something, it's not something I should let go. He expressed that he wants to hear what we have to say, and that I shouldn't feel defeated, but that I need to be resilient.
I told him I could see that we disagreed on what was important to study but thanked him for listening to me.
He told me to not feel defeated and stay resilient. Then I left into the rain and pulled my hood over my blotchy face and walked back to my room, feeling defeated and proud and sad and frustrated and strong and bitter and relieved and at peace all at the same time.
I think he understood my general point, but I don't think he really understood that I was seeing this as an intentional act toward equality and justice — equality and justice for my contemporary peers, as well as for all the souls who we ought to remember. This tiny step I took certainly made me realize how much I've taken my rights for granted. Power is an interesting thing.
While my professor and I disagreed in this discussion on how to approach studying women and other underrepresented groups, it really wasn’t a defeat. I had held 40 minutes of my professor’s undivided attention, and we had engaged in a discussion of ideas that he admitted had not ever come up to him until this year. He later followed up with an email, which tells me that I got him to think seriously about this. I’ve sent a response that acknowledges the points he made yet also expresses my position in a way that draws on some of the themes from his class. We’ll see what happens.
I think my professor is valid in some of the points he made and I do think he’s a fair and good person. But it was important to me to challenge the way he is teaching, to challenge the way we approach looking at these subjects and matters, and to defend the narratives — however small or big a role they played — because we can learn so much from them. It was thinking of all the brave suffragettes, all the women who defied the standards of their day, who gave me the courage to speak up. If those stories aren't shared, how can any change happen?
There is a lot that needs to be changed, I believe, in the way some things are taught. I'm glad that I went in to talk to my professor about what I believe needs to be considered and addressed. I'm glad I didn't let my emotions stop me from coming in to talk about it. I was nervous, but I knew that doing what was right and defending my position was something I'd never regret. I'm so grateful to the friends and family who I can lean on for support. Imagine what change could happen if everyone felt emboldened to speak up for what is right.