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1 To the Uncertain Instructor: Why All Politics Courses Are Benefitted by Critical Discussion of Sex and Gender
26 On Teaching About Sex and Gender in Each and Every Political Science Course
processes are constantly wrapped up in exercising power over women and women’s
bodies (Nelson 2013).
Further, the institutions themselves have well documented inequalities in their
very make up (Mundy 2015). Even at the current record high in the US Congress of
20 Senators and 84 Members of the House, women remain severely underrepresented at all levels of government. This means that while the institutions of U.S.
government exercise political power over women, women are disproportionately
left out of the exercise of that power. Thus, there are signiﬁcant questions about the
use and control of political power in relation to sex and gender equity. In short, sex
and gender issues are central to U.S. political institutions.
So, any attempt to discuss central elements of government, whether the institutions themselves or the political process structured through these institutions, are
incomplete if they ignore the way in which sex and gender are central to US politics.
And yet, few textbooks or readers treat sex and gender as central, reserving the topics of women’s issues for special edited volumes that exist as critical “alternatives”
to mainstream materials on politics, usually relegated to courses designed speciﬁcally for the topic of sex and gender. Providing good political science education
about institutions and political processes needs to explicitly and consciously seek to
address this marked absence in traditional course materials.
Being able to demonstrate the centrality of women and women’s issues in the exercise of power through contemporary political institutions is only one part of the
story. Feminist and gender theory has turned critical attention to the very nature of
politics itself. Feminist and gender theory draws attention to patriarchy, heteronormativity, and the constant production and reproduction of gender roles that produce (and are reproduced by) the power exercised in formal political institutions
(Millett 2000; Pateman 1988; de Beauvoir 2011).
These insights are not simply abstract concepts appropriate only for philosophy
classes. Politics doesn’t just act on women, or on members of the LGBTQ community. Politics itself is gendered. Norms about gender difference permeate social life
at the deepest level (in everyday interactions and assumptions through repeated
gender performances), and these divisions are reﬂected, reproduced, and furthered
in formal institutions. No complete account of formal institutions or the political
process can entirely skip over these insights.
Rather than offer an elaborate argument on the importance of abstract theory for
understanding the common practice of institutions, I think an example will provide
more clarity. Women’s underrepresentation in elected ofﬁce might be explained in
a number of ways, including institutional processes (electoral rules, party organizations, etc.). But these institutions (and the individuals acting within them) are situated within a system of powerful gender norms that produce a widely shared vision
of who counts as a leader (and who doesn’t). Women face this additional challenge
when struggling to be taken seriously as worthy participants in the highest levels of
political leadership – not only in the deeply held stereotypes and assumptions of
voters, but even in the internalized assumptions in individual women themselves.
There are important connections between the images of young women in the media
(of hypersexualization and infantilization) and the lack of women in high leadership
positions (Miss Representation 2011). Cultural reproduction of gender norms matters relative to women’s access to and participation in politics, whatever the electoral rules or institutional designs. And any analysis that doesn’t strive to demonstrate
these connections to students will leave out a crucial element of understanding this
central problem for U.S. intuitions.
Finally, pedagogical considerations also justify (demand, even) the inclusion of
critical examination and discussion of sex and gender issues. A number of pedagogical orientations – feminist, critical, transformative – argue that teachers do
more than provide basic facts about politics and political institutions (Giroux 2008;
Darder et al. 2009; Maher and Tetreault 2001). We are also there to help students
become more capable citizens who can analyze, ask questions, and critically consider the world around them. Treating students (in Freirian terms) as “banks” to be
ﬁlled with knowledge about politics and political institutions will only go so far in
making them more engaged and capable democratic citizens. Critical analysis of
sex and gender, and the resulting opportunity to discuss the implications of this
analysis, goes a long way into giving students opportunities for critical and transformative engagement with the material. This level of engagement ﬁts into a broader
project of teaching the kind of critical and oppositional thinking that democracy so
badly needs. As Henry Giroux poignantly writes:
At its most ambitious, the overarching narrative in [critical pedagogy] is to educate students
to lead a meaningful life, learn how to hold power and authority accountable, and develop
the skills, knowledge, and courage to challenge commonsense assumptions while being
willing to struggle for a more socially just world. In this view, it is necessary for critical
pedagogy to be rooted in a project that is tied to the cultivation of an informed, critical citizenry capable of participating and governing in a democratic society. As such, it aims at
enabling rather than subverting the potential of a democratic culture (Giroux, 7 2011).
Bringing sex and gender issues up in “standard” courses serves to demonstrate
that such critical views are not marginal alternatives to regular political considerations. Too often we compartmentalize critical consideration of sex and gender into
speciﬁc courses and limit our students’ opportunities for critical consideration and
contestation of male supremacy and gender norms alongside their “regular” coursework. Feminist analysis becomes a point of view for a certain class, for radical
students, or practiced by some professors in some departments, but not a vital and
critical (and mainstream) perspective for (all) students-cum-citizens.
26 On Teaching About Sex and Gender in Each and Every Political Science Course
Further – and I’ll return to this concept in my own observations at the end of the
essay – students that typically enroll in the “standard” political science courses may
be those most in need of opportunities to consider sex and gender issues, as many
of these students will elect not to take courses speciﬁcally dedicated to sex and
gender. It may be the case for many students that they will have few opportunities
to be shown the connections between sex, gender and politics in the course of their
education. Thus every teaching opportunity is critical.
Relatedly, there is also reason to think that the overly masculine world of politics
(and political science education) can alienate women students to a degree. Critical
discussions of sex and gender, both in their content and in the fact that they are topics in the course in the ﬁrst place, can increase women’s sense of connection to the
material and to the unfolding of the course experience (Maher and Tetreault 2001).
Their experience and situated knowledge as women are (rightfully) given opportunity to inform the critical educational experience for all students (Collins 2000).
Specific Possibilities for Including Sex and Gender
Issues in “Standard” Politics Courses
Granting all of the above, however, does not mean that ﬁnding appropriate spaces
and opportunities to include issues of sex and gender is simple. The challenges are
clear enough: a crowded syllabus, a responsibility to give students some speciﬁc
knowledge about particular institutions or political processes, and limited time.
Given these limitations, instructors have to seek out moments and opportunities to
facilitate student reﬂection on sex and gender in ways that keep the course focus in
sight (in order to facilitate connections inherent to politics and sex/gender).
Its unlikely, for instance, that an introductory course on U.S. politics has room
for large excerpts from Carole Pateman or Simone de Beauvoir. The instructor,
then, will probably be limited to steering in-class lessons and discussions toward
more critical engagement of sex and gender issues. Using additional media (ﬁlms,
visual presentations, or short in class readings) can also be incredibly helpful in
opening up these more critical engagements with institutions and political processes. These additional in-class materials do not need to be absolutely central to
the regular course material, since they are meant to push additional critical reﬂection beyond the core topics of the course. For instance, a brief presentation on gender and media imagery can get the conversation started on gender norms with an
eye on helping the class connect these deeply held stereotypes to gendered norms at
work in political institutions. I have done this several times in a Sports and Politics
class. I use media imagery from sports magazines and programming in order to
uncover norms of masculinity and femininity in coverage of sports. The images of
sports then get shifted to images used to cover women candidates for ofﬁce. Then,
we have a conversation about the coverage of public ﬁgures and whether these same
stereotypes seen in sports coverage persist in these other forms of coverage. Within
a few minutes students in a class primarily focused on sports begins to consider how
gender stereotypes in media coverage negatively affect the chances of women candidates for ofﬁce (typically agreeing that they in fact do).
Accordingly, then, the instructor should endeavor to have at least some familiarity with feminist and gender theory as facilitator of critical conversations around
sex and gender. And for most purposes, a little theory can go a long way. It’s often
the case that students’ own reﬂections of their lived experience within systems of
gender norms can power the conversation. But being able to “get the ball rolling” is
easiest if the instructor can articulate conceptions such as gender stereotypes and
gender performance, of “women as other,” or of “intersectionality” in order to
prompt student response and promote reﬂection. This level of basic guidance in
discussion doesn’t require expertise in feminist philosophy (and, in fact, admitting
that one is not an expert can invite students to participate in helpful ways, drawing
on their own authority). Rather, it is enough to be able to provide helpful terminology and conceptual categories for getting at deep connections between sex, gender
and politics. For instance, I have found that even a very basic explanation of “intersectionality” can help students appreciate the overlapping barriers facing some
groups in the population that have real, practical political consequences. I have used
this concept to help explain differing voter turnout rates in certain subsets of the
population, noting the particular disadvantages that women in minority communities face in districts with more traditional polling times and places (economic barriers, family, time and work commitments, disenchantment with politics, etc.). That
certain barriers to voting disproportionately burden certain groups in the population
becomes much more clear to many students with a little “abstract” theory.
This also means that the instructor cannot get bogged down in an overly cautious
“neutral” presentation on politics. There’s good reason to doubt that true neutrality
is possible or even desirable in education (Concepcion and Eﬂin 2009, 185–7).
Attempting to bring critical engagement of power dynamics and hierarchies based
on sex and gender in political life is a worthy project; one that is distinct, of course,
from demanding that students transform themselves into feminists. The act of
engaging in these difﬁcult topics is entirely justiﬁable as part of an educational mission, and instructors should openly and clearly explain that critical engagement –
and not conversion – is the goal of the discussion/exercise in question. At a
minimum, an instructor should not hesitate to offer critical understandings of laws,
policies, or public statements that are discriminatory. Say, for instance, suggesting
the discrepancy between anti-abortion legislation and the professed libertarian principles of “Tea Party” politicians. Nothing in suggesting this discrepancy demands
students become pro-choice advocates, nor that they renounce all respect for the
Tea Party. It does (rightly) ask them to think critically about what might be behind
conﬂicting policy stances, which deeply and directly affect women.
Critical and feminist pedagogical theories provide a number of useful ways of
conceptualizing the educational mission and the role of the educator (Mayberry and
Rose 1999). These range from abstract to concrete in terms of classroom presentation style, comportment of the instructor, and lesson design. In my own experience,
an open and comfortable discussion around a few select materials can accomplish a