Feminist Theory In Education Essay

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Feminist theory contributes significantly to the social and cultural foundations of education. This entry traces the history of the feminist movement in the United States, explores various meanings of feminist theory, and considers what feminist theory contributes to education.

In the United States the feminist movement is associated with three waves, or periods of time, with the “first wave” feminist movement (1848–1920s) representing women’s efforts to get the right to vote, to own property, to divorce and receive alimony and child support, and to manage their own bodies (e.g., sexual reproductive rights). First wave feminism is associated with Seneca Falls, New York, and the sustained agitation for concrete social change of suffragettes such as Lucreta Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth.

The “second wave” of the feminist movement corresponds to the 1960s to ’70s and to women’s efforts to obtain equal access to higher education in all fields of study and to be free from discriminated in the workplace due to their gender. While second wave feminists sought equal treatment in the classroom and on the job, they continued the fight for the right to manage their own bodies (e.g., sexual reproductive rights). Second wave feminism is associated with Ms. magazine and with Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Mary Daly, to name a few. It was during this time that women’s studies programs opened on college campuses across the country and feminist theory began to develop in earnest.

Starting in the early 1990s, a “third wave” of the feminist movement began to develop. This third wave represents an explosion of multiple, diverse perspectives as Third World, lesbian, Chicana, indigenous, and Black feminists and others add their voices to the movement. They critique the essentializing of “woman” as a category, one which has privileged heterosexuality, First World, middle-class, and White norms. Third wave feminism is associated with Audrey Lorde, Adrienne Rich, María Lugones, Gloria Anzaldúa, Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, Donna Haraway, Gayatri Spivak, and Trinh Minh-ha, to name a few.

Beyond a general agreement that women have been oppressed and unjustly treated, and that discrimination on the basis of gender is wrong, there is much upon which various feminists do not agree. It is dangerous to assume there is a “female point of view” or that women have special resources available to them due to their experiences as females. It is also problematic to think that only women can be feminists. In fact, some postmodern feminist scholars, such as Judith Butler and Luce Irigaray, recommend that we get rid of “gender” as a general category, because of the false binary it establishes (man/woman) and the androcentric and/or heterosexual norms and standards it imposes of people’s shifting sexual identities. The feminist movement, in all its waves, has helped us understand that the personal is political, that what goes on in the home is very much related to how the larger society defines individuals’ gendered roles, and that those roles need to be critiqued. Feminists have demonstrated that language is not gender neutral, but in fact affects our consciousness, and that social institutions are not natural or given, and therefore settled for all time. Feminist theory reveals how gender roles are socially constructed, by showing how they have varied across time and cultures, and how they continue to adapt and change. Feminism is concerned with the forms and functions of power and how power is wielded, in particular against girls and women.

Second Wave Feminism

During the second wave of feminist research, much focus was placed on discrimination issues within educational settings. Researchers looked at tracking issues, and why it is that girls were tracked into “traditionally feminine” classes such as child care, education, home economics, and nursing, and not honors classes and higher-level math and science classes. Attention was placed on studying what teachers do in schools to discourage girls, such as not calling on them as often as boys or not giving them the opportunity to correct their mistakes before moving on to someone else (usually a boy). Attention was also placed on the curricula, and how girls were presented in pictures and stories in comparison to boys. Researchers looked at ways students were assessed and began to consider the possibility that what were taken to be gender neutral and unbiased methods of assessment might actually favor boys over girls, given that boys consistently score higher on field independent, analytically focused material and multiple-choice exams, while girls tend to do better on essay-type exams. During this time, all classes became open to both genders, and efforts began to be made to actively encourage girls to achieve at the same levels as boys.

In university settings, with the opening of women’s studies programs during the second wave, faculty began to explore gender issues and to consider whether there was gender discrimination at the higher education level involving students, faculty, and/or administrators. Faculty began to critically examine their philosophies of teaching to discover if the way they taught, how they assessed students, their expectations, and their curricula, for example, were gender biased. They turned a critical eye on their curricula and discovered that women’s contributions as scholars and artists were missing. It was hard to find their work included in texts, and if they were included they were relegated to the margins, as the final chapter in the book that no one seemed to get to, or in boxes on the margins and at the end of chapters. More girls were admitted to college than ever before during the second wave, but it was still not in equal proportion or under the same standards.

During the second wave of the feminist movement, much effort was placed on trying to recover women’s work from earlier periods of time, and to protect that earlier work that was rescued from biased male presentations of it, to allow the women to speak for themselves. This work continues today. See, for example, Jane Roland Martin’s Reclaiming a Conversation and Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s Pragmatism and Feminism. Another example of the gender problem is Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which was translated into English by a male editor without her permission and with her disapproval in regards to the translation. Also during this period of time, scholars began to realize that most studies that were used to shape the development of fields of study, such as psychology, were based on studies of males with the theories developed assumed to be general and applicable to all human beings, regardless of gender. Research began focusing on women and girls, such as that reported in Carol Gilligan’s work, In a Different Voice, and Mary Belenky, Blythe Clinchy, Nancy Goldberger, and Jill Tarules’s study, Women’s Ways of Knowing, which drew attention specifically to women and girls and developed theories based on interviews and observations of them. Feminist scholars began arguing for the qualities and experiences of women that are specific to their gender and have been devalued and marginalized but need to be recognized and valued in society. Care theories are examples of gender-based theories, such as those in Nel Noddings’s Caring and Sara Ruddick’s Maternal Thinking, as well as in Sandra Harding’s feminist standpoint epistemology.

In women’s studies courses during the second wave, feminist professors began to explore alternative methods of instruction and to critically examine their role as teachers as well as their students’ roles. Critique was developed for the standard lecture style of teaching and the passive role in which it positioned students. It became more common to see chairs organized in circles instead of rows in college classrooms, and to have teachers encouraging their students to share about their personal lives in the public classroom space, as well as for teachers to break down the public/private split and to soften their role as authority by sharing with students about their personal lives as well in the classroom space. Questions concerning the teacher’s role as authority and students’ roles as active learners and co-constructors of knowledge were openly discussed in classrooms and written about in feminist theory. Small group discussions and collaborative approaches to teaching were developed, in contrast to competitive models. Performance and portfolio forms of assessment were developed, as well as group grades.

Third Wave Feminism

Third wave feminism has contributed to feminist theory in education by critiquing second wave feminist theory for its lack of attention to other power issues that influence varied gendered experiences and expressions. Attention is currently being placed on the assumed positions of power with first and second wave feminism. Earlier feminist theory is being critiqued for its lack of awareness or attention to norms of Whiteness, property-owning classes, heterosexuality, and able bodiedness, for example. Third World women who have received higher levels of education in First World universities are now able to contribute to the conversation as scholars and have their voices heard. They are offering critiques of First World colonization and the arrogance of its assuming to know Third World women and their needs. Third wave feminists offer sharp criticisms of their earlier sisters’ work, which is unfortunately causing that earlier work to disappear from conversations and classrooms, setting up again what will become the need for future recovery work of women’s contributions to scholarship.

In the classroom, third wave feminists have questioned the idea that a classroom can ever be a safe environment, as second wave feminists tried to make it, for there are too many power issues involved. Not only is safety an impossibility, it is questionable whether it is even a worthy ideal, as it is through risk and discomfort that we learn to trouble the basic categories we take as a given and begin to experience the cracks and fissures and see the faults and weaknesses in our worldviews. In this space of discomfort and unease is where education as growth can take place. Third wave feminists emphasize our plurality and differences as they uncover the hidden colonization of the 1960s melting-pot metaphor, which argued for others, strangers, to become assimilated to the norms of White, property-owning, Anglo-Saxon, heterosexual Christians. For women and girls this assimilation process meant that they would be treated equally as long as they could adapt and be like the men and boys. Feminists refer to this assimilation approach as “add women and stir.”

Feminist theory in education today refers to models for education that emphasize diversity and encourage us to maintain and value plurality. Metaphors such as salads and Chinese hot pots abound to describe students’ unique, distinctive qualities, as well as their commonality. Feminist scholars emphasize our shifting, changing identities (Judith Butler’s drag, Donna Haraway’s cyborg, and Gloria Anzaldúa’s mestiza metaphors come to mind) and our coming together in cohorts to address particular social/political problems, and then disbanding as those problems are addressed (for example, Iris Young’s unoppressive city metaphor). Feminist theory in education offers some of the most exciting, cutting edge, politically and culturally aware work that contributes to our thinking about education in new ways today.


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  2. Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N., & Tarule, J. (1986).
  3. Women’s ways of knowing. New York: Basic Books. Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.
  4. Collins, P. H. (1990).
  5. Black feminist thought. Boston: Unwin Hyman. de Beauvoir, S. (1989).
  6. The second sex (H. M. Parshley, Ed. & Trans.). New York: Random House. (Original work published 1952)
  7. Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  8. Grimshaw, J. (1986). Philosophy and feminist thinking. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Barbara J. Thayer-Bacon
  9. Haraway, D. (1991). Simians, cyborgs, and women: The reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge.
  10. Harding, S. (1991). Whose science? Whose knowledge? Thinking from women’s lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  11. hooks, b. (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Boston: South End Press.
  12. Iragaray, L. (1985). Speculum of the other woman (G. Gill, Trans.) [Reprint]. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. (Original work published 1974)
  13. Martin, J. R. (1985). Reclaiming a conversation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  14. Martin, J. R. (1994). Changing the educational landscape: Philosophy, women, and curriculum. New York: Routledge.
  15. Noddings, N. (1984). Caring: A feminine approach to ethics and moral education. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  16. Ruddick, S. (1989). Maternal thinking: Toward a politics of peace. Boston: Beacon Press.
  17. Seigfried, C. H. (1996). Pragmatism and feminism: Reweaving the social fabric. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  18. Stone, L. (Ed.). (1994). The education feminism reader. New York: Routledge.
  19. Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the politics of difference.

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