Why I Teach Women’s Studies at an All-Girls Catholic School

I teach at the only all-girls school in the state of Minnesota. We are also a devoted Catholic community, founded by the Visitation Sisters to educate young women in virtue, intellect, mind and heart. To build on our founders’ mission, the school began offering a women’s studies elective titled “Women and Society”, which I have proudly taught since 2014.

The course covers the history of feminism then and now, which includes an extensive lesson on gender violence. Sexual abuse and violence against women are already difficult topics to have with teenagers — adding the fact that we are a Catholic school is enough to make the anxiety of my school administrators skyrocket.

Still, our students deserve a curriculum that gives them access to unpacking the injustices of being a young person in a world that still abuses and discriminates against women.

As a teacher, I can equip my students with the knowledge to transform our society into one that values the inherent dignity of women. Even though it feels risky at an all-girls Catholic school, as our students become emboldened to create a more equitable world, including women’s studies in our curriculum has become crucial.

When Friction and Opposition Arise

A former colleague originally created the women’s studies course in response to our school’s push to brand itself as a leading institution that helps girls realize their potential and lead lives of dignity and service. Luckily, the school board felt his proposal for “Women and Society” aligned with this push, and the course was approved. Right before my colleague retired in 2014, he asked if I would like to take it over, to which I firmly replied, “Yes!” I applied for the position, and because of my experience studying and minoring in women’s studies during college, I was given the opportunity to teach the course.

Over time, the course has become a student favorite. Students have felt empowered by women’s studies because it invites them to interrogate and understand systemic injustices and the conflicting perceptions of feminism they’ve been taught by friends, family and social media. Unfortunately, teaching women’s studies is still seen as antithetical to Catholicism in our wider school community.

In 2016, like most communities in our nation, our school became divided between conservative and progressive Catholic beliefs, which, while improving, have yet to be fully resolved. Many community members also believed that activism and feminism were topics that did not belong in our curricula. As a result, the women’s studies course became an easy target to identify as anti-Catholic, and as the teacher of this course, I came under scrutiny and the curriculum I created was reduced to a political agenda that promoted the aims of man-hating feminists.

Frankly, and for the record, the course does not have an agenda, yet I spend an exhausting amount of time proving that advocating for the dignity of and an end to violence against women is deeply connected to our Catholic identity.

As an educator, I embrace my classroom as a place of hope and gathering where the students and I come together to grow our empathy and humanity. Women’s studies provide a space to do just that, and I’ve learned when we see the inherent dignity of each person we encounter, we create a better community of learners.

Despite the controversies the class and its curriculum bring from the school community at times, our administration and the Visitation Sisters have never decided to eliminate “Women and Society” from our course catalog. In fact, there is full agreement among our teachers and administrators that teaching young women and girls to advocate for themselves is foundational to who we are as a Catholic school.

Helping Students Connect Their Catholic Identity to Feminism

Women’s studies at our all-girls Catholic school is important because we have the prime opportunity to center our lives as women in a male-dominated society. In the course, not only do we make an effort to debunk commonly held myths about feminism but we also establish a definition of feminism that aligns with our school’s mission.

At the beginning of the course, I introduce Catholic feminist Elizabeth A Johnson, who defines feminism as:

“a worldview or stance that affirms the dignity of women as fully human persons in their own right; critiques systems of patriarchy for violation of this dignity; and advocates social and intellectual challenges to bring about freeing relationships among human beings….”

I use this quote to establish a partnership and direct connection between feminism that seeks the full dignity of women and the Catholic concept of the dignity of the human person. This allows us to dissect how women’s dignity is systematically stripped away in a society that prioritizes the needs of men.

With feminism firmly grounded in the idea that women deserve equal dignity, we can look at hard topics such as gender violence and ask why society functions in a way that repeatedly diminishes the dignity of women. Far too often, women’s dignity is erased and devalued in our society, especially given that 1 in 5 women in the United States are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Walking the hallways at our all-girls Catholic school makes this statistic particularly alarming.

To me, the most impactful part of our study of gender violence is when I bring a panel of sexual assault and abuse victim-survivors to our class. One of the victim-survivors is an alumna, and she and two of her colleagues have come to class over the last few years to speak about their personal experience with gender-based violence. Every time they come, they speak with a level of frankness, humor and authenticity that leaves students’ hearts raw and on fire. Suddenly, gender violence — a topic we have researched and studied in the abstract — is humanized by the real-life experiences of these women. Students better understand how pervasively close sexual assault and abuse are to their own lives, and that it can also happen to strong, confident women just like them.

By the end of the panel, students are forever changed by the courage and vulnerability of the victim-survivors and inspired to share their knowledge with family, friends and anyone who will listen. To me, this is education working at its deepest level.

Women’s Studies in a Catholic School is Important

Educating our students on the ways our society perpetuates gender violence and the inferiority of women is an obligation I have as a teacher at an all-girls Catholic school. As a graduate of an all-girls Catholic high school myself and a mother of three daughters, I want to know I’ve done my part to educate and dream with students about a safer, more dignified existence for women.

Even as many community members believe teaching women’s studies is outside the boundaries of Church doctrine, I still believe that it is the responsibility of Catholics to engage in the fight to end discrimination against women and build a society where dignity is equally shared between all genders. As Catholic theologian Sister Joan Chittister states, feminism “is not about getting what men already have…Feminism is about getting a better world for everybody.”

Much like the Visitation Sisters, I’ll continue to exercise my leadership as a woman in a patriarchal framework to work toward equality, starting from the inside out.

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