- I have been stuck for months on the question of how to encourage my students to consider how poverty, or rather, the viewpoints of those who live as impoverished persons, can be used as categories of analysis. Just as feminist theory and critical race theory have pushed academia to decenter the authority of the abstract rational subject–the all-knowing, disembodied, cis gendered, white man–in part by encouraging actual persons, who experience their subjecthood in diverse bodies that exist in a unique contexts to voice their knowledge–I hope to push the center closer to the margins by use of class. But (this is the “stuck” part of my thinking) how can I achieve this as a teacher without problematically celebrating poverty, or even more difficult, without falling into the icky trap of romanticizing the perspectives of the poor. While I remain committed to challenging the unearned authority of European rationalism, I am equally committed to avoiding the insulting, cringe worthy, notion that the oppressed are always right, or that the persons struggling at the lowest ranks of social hierarchies possess some super human (or perhaps super nonhuman? Super animal?) instincts about the truth of nature, of family, of justice, etc. While I assume that the problems of this are obvious, let me provide an example just to be clear. When I teach the early American history course, inevitably I encountered a misunderstanding that requires my intervention. In our discussion of European colonization and contact with Native American nations, students routinely describe Native Americans as closer to nature, “free,” in effect noble. (think Noble Savage.) Not only is this racial thinking, it is also simply inaccurate. Such stereotypes make it impossible for students to learn how history actually happened. This romanticization of the oppressed is not just racist and dehumanizing, it also poses serious pedagogical blocks that we must learn to overcome.
- In this spirit, I have decided to incorporate a poverty-focused analysis by incorporating more lessons on poor white men in American history. While it may seem out of place in a class titled History of Women, I believe that an examination of white men in American history will illuminate how poverty operates as a discursive tool for the elites, and thusly will enable my students to see, even more clearly, how such discourses shape their on lives. This focus will help my students more fully understand that the discourses of poverty have historically encouraged some Americans to claim their working class status as a badge of honor, as proof of their legitimate claim to citizenry, while simultaneously shaming non-white poor people, demanding that they cloak and clean their poverty before they dare speak or act.
- In short, I hope to remind students that while the experience of living life as a poor person is often painful, stressful, and excruciatingly exhausting, being poor is nothing to be ashamed of. They should never feel embarrassed for their hunger, or their lack. And while they deserve to be nourished and comfortably housed in lovely spaces surrounded by art, and above all beauty, they need not aspire to the “codes” of bourgeois. The poor do not need to explain themselves–it is the abundance of the elites that must be explained.
- This goal is broad, and its achievement will require subtlety. Meaning, I will not be announcing my agenda, nor will I ask my students to step forward as empowered citizens determined to change the world. That is not my job, moreover, it is not my place. While it would be dishonest of me to suggest that I don’t care whether or not my students decide to shift radically left and vow to smash the capitalist patriarchal state–I do, very much–I believe that such revelations must grow organically from the lessons we teach. If I superimpose my political hopes onto the minds/lives of my students, I run the very real risk of silencing the creative possibilities for fostering change that live within their histories and imaginations. Thus, all I can do is teach the lessons history has taught me and trust that my students will take what they need.
 I am leaning heavily on Joan Scott’s classic essay on gender as a means of knowing to inform my thinking. “Gender: A Useful Category for Historical Analysis.” American Historical Review, 1980.
I am still sorting out how I will do this. The main challenge is that this method involves including more material. In a course where I already struggle to squeeze in topics I find essential, I am still sorting out how I can manage to fit in three new topics. The three new topics I plan to include are:
- Dorr’s War and Jacksonian Democracy
- The Elites Appeal to Poor White Men During the Civil War
- FDR’s New Deal policies which sought to uphold the “Man of the House”
Below is an example of my schedule/syllabus for this course. As you can see, I take the basic structure of the American history survey and I “gender” it. Meaning, instead of shifting the focus toward problematic themes of “Women’s History” (such a concept implies that women existed as a pre given historical category–they did not.) I teach the course by demonstrating that ALL history has a gender, a race, etc. While I love this methodology, it does make it difficult to teach the material. Students often know nothing about, for example, the American Revolution. Thus I have to teach the basics, and then encourage a revision of what I just taught.
8/27: Welcome to Class!
8/29: What is History? The Invention Of Nations…
9/5: What is Women’s History?
Ø Reading Due: Kate Haulman “What is Women’s History?”
9/12: Gender and Colonial Contact
9/17: Anglo-Indian Gender Frontier
Ø Reading Due: Kathleen Brown, “The Anglo-Indian Gender Frontier”
9/24: Gender and the Invention of Plantation Slavery in America
9/26: Gender and Slavery
Ø Reading Due: Kathleen Brown, “Engendering Race”
You must have met with me to discuss your essay topic by this date.
10/1: In-class viewing of The Midwives Tale
10/3: Comparing Colonial Gender Systems
Ø Reading Due: Mary Beth Norton Essay
10/10: Essay Workshop
10/15: Women and the American Revolution
10/17: The Gender of Citizenship
Complete Outline of Essay Due in Class Today
10/22: Midterm Prep
10/29: Women and the Market Revolution
Ø Reading Due: Faragher and Mintz-Kellog Essays
11/5: Women in the Old South
11/7: Women’s Rights and Abolition
ESSAY DUE by 10:00pm 11/9 via Email
11/12: The Victorian Body
11/14: The Invention of Sexuality
Ø Reading Due: Michel Foucault The History of Sexuality, excerpt
11/19: Women and the Progressive Era
11/21: Gender and Industrial Labor
Ø Film Viewing Due: Triangle
11/26: Women in Post-War America
11/28: Women in Post-War America
Ø Reading Due: Stephanie Coontz “The Way We Never Were”
12/3: The Second Wave
12/5: The Second Wave Continued
Ø Reading Due: Essays by Ryan and Huerta
12/10: Does Women’s History Exist?
Ø Reading Due: Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools”
12/12: FINAL EXAM