Today, I am introducing students to feminist theory. The introduction is very broad, but they will engage with the theory enough to fulfill the purpose I have in mind. The purpose is to allow students to move outside of the text, beyond plot and characters, and discuss an important element of the text, one that helps explain why Their Eyes Were Watching God has had such lasting effect and continues to resonate as a powerful example of American literature.
I announce to students that today they are going to be introduced to feminist theory and I give them a handout of notes on feminism with a set of important points of the theory. I explain that this will be an additional lens through which we can analyze Their Eyes Were Watching God. I go over each point and ask students to highlight key words in the notes. The points in the handout are not particularly complex so we cover them quite easily. What I do is read each point aloud and ask students to identify the word(s) we should highlight. They are very good at doing this. During this process, students will ask about new language they are unfamiliar with, especially “misogyny” and “patriarchy.” I take the time to explain each. Feminism and sexism are provocative concepts to address in high school classrooms. They have the potential of causing discomfort among students who do not want to see their world in this way, especially for boys who are not comfortable with the implications of their role in this picture. This is why this is presented as a theory and only asks for students to figure out why this novel has been considered a feminist one as seen through that lens. At the same time, this theory does make sense to a large part of my student population, boys and girls, and it leads to good discussion.
One concept that needs a bit of time to cover is the term “gender roles.” To explain, I tell students that there are certain behaviors our society expects of men and of women and that when we do not abide by these “rules,” our behavior is considered abnormal. I draw a female and a male symbol on the board and ask students to think of behaviors that are expected of men and of women. They suggest things like: men are the providers, women raise children, women do the cooking, men do the heavy lifting, women are emotional, men are tough. A list of this length makes the point. I then ask them to tell me what they think of this. Some find some of these amusing, some confirm their validity by sharing a personal experience, some declare that this is unfair. As soon as someone states that this is unfair, I let students know that this is the general point feminist theory makes about gender roles. They are unfair because they are untrue. I illustrate by stating that men, like women, also have the need to cry and express feelings and that it is unfair that society does not make room for that. I give them a common example I know many of my students are familiar with. I ask them to think of a three or four-year-old boy who gets hurt and is not allowed to cry because “men don’t cry.” I affirm what they also already know, that this message may be sent by both mom and dad. They get the point.
At the end of this part of the lesson, their handout has the key terms highlighted and this visually helps them focus on the aspects of sexism and feminism they can apply in the next part of this lesson. This is a video of how we created this visual.
I use a children’s book titled Piggybook by Anthony Browne to give students a nonthreatening opportunity to apply what they just learned about feminism. I have several great children’s stories I use to introduce complex concepts like feminism. I like using children’s books because they can be extremely engaging for people of all ages if you choose a good one. There are plenty of good ones out there. My eleventh graders openly appreciating this story commenting on the illustrations and openly saying things like, “Oh, this is a cool story.”
I read the book aloud to them projecting each page on the board for them. After reading it, I ask students to work with one or two classmates to discuss how Piggybook is a feminist story and to use the back of their notes on Feminism to jot down notes on their discussion. I give them a few minutes to discuss one specific example from Piggybook that they can connect to a feminist/sexist concept and that can be used to discuss this story as a feminist story. For support, I give them some guidelines. I have these guidelines posted on the board.
The text is a feminist text if:
I then ask students to share what they have come up with. Sharing out turns into a discussion about feminism. Students are able to point out the fact that the mother works on the car at the end and that this challenges the idea of gender roles. They also point out that once the father and sons are helping with chores, they all look happy, also a challenge to the idea of gender roles. They also say that the mother is being oppressed. Gender roles is the easiest concept for them to identify and discuss. This will also be true when it is time to apply these concepts to Their Eyes Were Watching God. I expect that they will need more support with the other concepts.
If there is any time left, I allow my students to get some much-needed time to read in silence. I let them know that they will be asked to apply feminist theory to Their Eyes Were Watching God and to keep that in mind as they continue reading.