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The New Misogyny: What It Means for Teachers and Classrooms

The vilification of K-12 teachers is part and parcel of the growing misogyny we are witnessing in today's United States.

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As we go marching, marching,
we’re standing proud and tall

The rising of the women means
the rising of us all.

Our lives shall not be sweated
from birth until life closes,

Hearts starve as well as bodies:
bread and roses, bread and roses.

The song “Bread and Roses” and the 1912 strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the phrase originated, remind us how important women’s struggles have been in U.S. history, and that the liberation of women is central to progress toward social justice.

There hasn’t been much talk about women’s liberation lately. Women have the vote; more than half the students at universities are women; rape is classified as a crime; there are women doctors, lawyers, soccer players, and secretaries of state. A lot of young professionals—and a lot of our students—would say that the whole idea of women’s liberation is passé, a non-issue.

Then, this spring’s political campaigns revealed a deep and ugly wound: misogyny that ranged from Rush Limbaugh’s crass attack on Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke to the repeal of Wisconsin’s pay equity law, from the Republican attacks on Title X (which subsidizes cervical and breast cancer screening, testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and birth control for 5 million low-income women) to Virginia’s mandated vaginal ultrasounds for women who want abortions.

What has been exposed is that the notion that we are “post-sexist” is a lie. There is a disturbing similarity to how the election of an African American president has masked the worsening realities for large numbers of African Americans—in the words of prison rights activist and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “One African American in the White House and a million in prison.” Professional opportunities for a narrow stratum of women have masked the worsening realities of life for millions of women caught up in the welfare system, the prison system, low-paying service jobs, domestic violence, and the ideological misogyny of growing fundamentalist religious and political perspectives.

The Stereotype of the ‘Lazy Teacher’

The vilification of K-12 teachers is part and parcel of this misogyny. Last year, when teachers led the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol, many pointed out the obvious: Attacks on teachers—and other public sector workers like nurses and social workers—are overwhelmingly attacks on women. When “reformers” from former D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie portray teachers as incompetent, incapable of leadership, and selfish, they don’t need to specify women teachers for that to be the image in people’s minds—76 percent of U.S. teachers are women; at the elementary school level, it’s nearly 90 percent. As education blogger Sabrina Stevens Shupe wrote recently, “The predominantly female teaching profession [is] among the latest [targets] in a long tradition of projecting community/social anxieties onto ‘bad’ women—from ‘witches’ to bad mothers to feminists and beyond.”

The decimation of teachers’ unions and tenure structures seems aimed at forcing K-12 teaching back to the era before teaching became a profession, when young women—barely trained and constrained by regulations enforcing their clothing, living situations, and drinking—taught for a few years before they got married. Here are some requirements from a typical teachers contract in 1923: The teacher is “not to ride in a carriage or automobile with any man except her brother or father” and “not to dress in bright colors.” She is “to wear at least two petticoats” and “to sweep the classroom floor at least once daily.”

More Than ‘Add a Woman and Stir’

These attacks on women—as teachers, as those with the right to control over their own childbearing, as human beings who deserve respect from politicians and the media—are being taken on by unions, political organizations, and activists across the country. But one aspect rarely discussed is what this new misogyny means for us in the classroom. As we have seen in other social justice struggles, claiming and passing on the history is integral to fighting for the future. It’s impossible to confront racism, militarism, or environmental degradation without understanding the history. The same is true for the oppression of women. Our students need a critical understanding of women’s lives and struggles in the past to understand and respond to the present.