Teaching Feminism: What’s in it for me?

Lindsay Clark


This is my third (or maybe fourth) year of leading first year seminars in IR theory. This week was gendering IR. That meant, unsurprisingly talking about gender and international relations, and that filthy word ‘feminism’. It has been a source of fascination to me to see how, over the years, and between the classes there is such a wide range of different opinions regarding gender (and its usefulness in IR) and in particular, feminism.

In my first year I was dismayed that almost none of my students, male or female, were prepared to identify themselves as feminist. Whereas in my second year I had a wide range of different feminists- again both male and female. This was heartening except that almost all of them agreed that whilst feminism was important, and inequality was #bad there wasn’t really any chance of equality occurring any time soon so they might as well just shrug and go back to discussing their night out. So I was overjoyed and then dashed into depression. Accepting inequality that you know is wrong just because you can’t be bothered to think about what it might take to make changes?! The apathy fairly killed me off. This year I have a larger than previous cohort, and a wider range of students, a greater degree of diversity. Which is awesome- both in its own right and because it makes for a wider range of opinions and perspectives which I think are important. I was delighted that many more students were engaging with the ideas of feminism, and prepared to be vocal about it. I was delighted that students were prepared to problematize different types of feminism and to engage with debates on equality as similarity and difference, to engage with ideas of femininity as power, language as creating gendered structures and intersectionality in relation to race, class and sexuality. So far, so glorious.

I’ve just finished my last class on this topic and was struck how one of my usually very critical (i.e. embracing of Marxism, critical of Realism) students was only prepared to engage with the idea of feminism as a good thing once we talked about how women and men would benefit. If there wasn’t anything in it for him then he was prepared to shrug it off. Now I get that talking about gender inequality from a position of privilege (i.e. as a man, particularly a white man) can sometimes feel difficult and there is a fear of saying the wrong thing. It’s the same issues I have to tackle during the weeks on race and racism, and colonialism. In those classes I am forced to acknowledge, as a white woman, the oppression of non-white peoples which places me in a position of privilege. But here’s the thing: it might be difficult to talk about that but it’s far more difficult to be situated outside of privilege, it is far more difficult to be oppressed, it is far more difficult to experience and live with the existing structural and personal instances of racism. And therefore it would simply be wrong for me to remain silent, enjoying my white privilege without asking what it means for others. I am deeply troubled by the idea that to combat inequality of any format there needs to be some kind of quid pro quo: that I should ask ‘what’s in it for me?’ How dare I collude in the continuation of any form of oppression that my attention is drawn to (or is drawn away from- after all it is often the silences and absences that point to where inequality exists) purely because I cannot see a benefit to myself?

I try very hard to be mindful of the fact that these are first year students; that they are dealing with sensitive topics that they might not yet feel they have the knowledge or vocabulary for. I always try to make sure that the class engages with both ‘where are the women?’ in international relations and the importance of noting that gender does not just apply to women through looking at masculinity and world politics. I tried to make the class friendly and accessible: I included a slide of different types of feminism linked to different kinds of Pokémon (yeah cheesy I know but anything to get this one opened up!). I included a quote from Emma Watson’s He for She campaign about the importance of gender equality for men. But for the majority of students in this class ‘feminism’ remained a dirty word, and some students even claimed that men and women are not equal.

For this class feminists, in my students’ young, fertile, future-leading brains, were bra burning, ugly and dangerous. I tried to tweak things a little by ‘outing’ myself as a feminist (I don’t think anyone was surprised, despite the fact I was wearing a bra and make up, and hadn’t, during the course of any of my classes, set light to anything). I tried giving an example of sexism that I had personally experienced- to which they shrugged and said ‘yeah but the men found you threatening, your femaleness and femininity, so they were probably scared of being judged.’ And maybe the student’s assessment of my sexist characters reasons were right, but their acceptance of that behaviour as ‘normal’ or acceptable in some way, I think, was incredibly wrong.

We’re making progress, I know we are. There are gradual international steps towards gender equality being made I am sure. But it frightens me to still be living in a world where students who are apparently interested in politics (domestic and international) are prepared to shrug off dealing with oppression or inequality because it’s hard, because that’s the way it is, or, worst of all, because it’s not clear what’s in it for ‘me’.



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