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1 To the Uncertain Instructor: Why All Politics Courses Are Benefitted by Critical Discussion of Sex and Gender

1 To the Uncertain Instructor: Why All Politics Courses Are Benefitted by Critical Discussion of Sex and Gender

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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.


Theoretical Reasons

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


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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.


Pedagogical Reasons

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


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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

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