Some Thoughts about Feminist Teaching and Feminist Advocacy

I have begun volunteering my time and skills at the Women’s Center and Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh in their legal advocacy program.  The work is challenging, fascinating, and compelling.  Working here I feel the same exhilaration that I have when leading discussion on feminist topics in the university classroom.  This is the work I want to do.  In many ways it is more satisfying than teaching, because I know that everything I do or say will immediately affect another person’s life.  This factor also makes the work daunting and pleasantly challenging.

In the classroom, I teach women and men to think critically about the formation and practice of gender in the world.  I ask them to consider the structures and institutions that have shaped their identities and their choices in the world: their families, their churches, their schools, their governments, their workplaces.

As a legal advocate, I work to support women who have suffered intimate partner violence and taken the first step to protect themselves and her children.  I guide each woman through the confusing and intimidating legal system.  I urge her to make her own choices, after thinking critically about her options and their consequences.  Obviously,  the woman sitting and weeping across from me with blackened eyes and broken facial bones neither needs nor deserves a lecture on gender and prejudice.  What she needs is my support, my compassion, and my discretion.   I have to set aside my own prejudices and cultural expectations, and respect her as the person who best knows what will keep her safe, and what she really wants.  (Note: I am not yet fully trained in this job, and therefore am only describing the position as I understand it after observing other advocates in action.)

So, here’s how I see the parallel, the similarity, between what I do in the classroom and in the anterooms of the court:  in both places I am trying to get people to think for themselves and to understand that they have choices about how they live in the world.  Of course, when teaching people to think about gender and sexuality as social constructs, identities created and enforced over a long period of time, I am asking them to consider themselves on an abstract and esoteric level.  When I am working with women as a legal advocate, I am teaching them to think about the court system, the laws pertaining to their situation, and the consequences of their and their abusers’ actions, so I am working on a much more concrete, practical level.   But in both situations my single, driving goal is to enable each individual to speak and choose for herself.  In both situations I am working to support the subjectivity, the active agency, of another person.

Although I will not bring up the topic of gender as an abstract concept when I’m working with a woman who has been beaten, stalked, harassed, raped, stabbed, assaulted, or threatened by an abuser, she will often raise questions about sexual prejudice and common myths about how men and women are supposed to behave.   She will often say, “I don’t have to take this,” or “he thinks he has the right to control me,”  or she will name some of the common insults that men hurl at women in order to demean and manipulate them.  One doesn’t need a college education, or even a high school degree, to understand that when men physically or emotionally abuse women, they are acting out of contempt for women.

Obviously, intimate partner violence is not limited to heterosexual couples, nor is the male partner in a heterosexual relationship always the aggressor, but men commit the overwhelming percentage of intimate partner violence incidents against women.  As the Pennsylvania Coalition of Domestic Violence states,

Domestic violence can happen to people of all racial, economic, educational, religious backgrounds and in heterosexual and same gender relationships. While both men and women may be victims of domestic violence, research shows that the overwhelming majority of adult victims are women and that domestic violence is a major cause of injury to women.

The underlying cause of intimate partner violence–and victims’ greatest enemy–is masculinism, the wholly arbitrary and erroneous belief that male beings are inherently superior to female beings and that, therefore, men justly have greater political, social, economic, legal, spiritual and psychological rights than women.

Unlike in Saudi Arabia, where women are not permitted to vote or drive, women in this country enjoy many of the same privileges that men do.  What we often forget is that women had to fight hard for these rights.  We still have not managed to elect a woman to the Executive branch, and very few State governors are female.  The GOP is currently waging a “war on women” and seem to care more about shutting down funding for programs that provide medical care, food, shelter and education primarily to poor women than about any other political agenda. A right-wing, mostly Christian minority has recently had great success in rolling back women’s hard-won right to sovereignty over their own bodies.  These “forced-birthers” want to force women to bear children against their will, even if pregnancy will kill them, and have introduced legislation to make the murder of an abortion provider a justifiable homicide.  As Amanda Marcotte notes, “It’s hard to overstate how much Republican energy is invested in bringing the uteruses of America under right-wing control.”

Moreover, we too often forget that our male-dominated legislature still actively opposes adding this language to the Constitution of the United States of America:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

Yes, that is the entire text of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Finding it hard to believe that we have still failed to pass this protection against sex discrimination?  Consider this also unbelievable fact: every 30 seconds, a man batters a woman in the United States.  See if you can figure out the connection.