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Progressive Education and Feminist Pedagogies: Issues in Gender, Power and Authority

by Frances A. Maher - 1999

This essay explores the relationship between feminist pedagogical theory and the student-centered legacy of progressive education around the specific issues of classroom gender relations and the construction of the female teacher’s authority. Are feminist pedagogies basically just “good teaching”? And if so, why is a specifically feminist pedagogy necessary? The essay is in four parts. It first discusses contemporary applications of progressive educational theory to issues of gender, as well as to other forms of inequality. Then, beginning with a discussion of the legacy of Dewey himself in relation to his writing on women, it focuses on an issue that holds specific problems for women teachers, namely that of the teacher’s authority in the classroom. Finally, through a few classroom examples, it suggests how thinking about gender and other aspects of difference as forms of unequal power relations can help reframe the grounds for the teacher’s authority, giving her (or him) grounds for active intervention in the power dynamics of the classroom in the name of a reformulation of democratic teaching.

This essay explores the relationship between feminist pedagogical theory and the student-centered legacy of progressive education around the specific issues of classroom gender relations and the construction of the female teacher’s authority. Are feminist pedagogies basically just “good teaching”? And if so, why is a specifically feminist pedagogy necessary? The essay is in four parts. It first discusses contemporary applications of progressive educational theory to issues of gender, as well as to other forms of inequality. Then, beginning with a discussion of the legacy of Dewey himself in relation to his writings on women, it focuses on an issue that holds specific problems for women teachers, namely that of the teacher’s authority in the classroom. Finally, through a few classroom examples, it suggests how thinking about gender and other aspects of difference as forms of unequal power relations can help reframe the grounds for the teacher’s authority, giving her (or him) grounds for active intervention in the power dynamics of the classroom in the name of a reformulation of democratic teaching.


The origins of this topic for me lie in a basic question: whether feminist pedagogy is, at bottom, simply another version of progressive pedagogies. Many have asked me about my own work in feminist pedagogy, “Isn’t what you are writing about just good teaching?” (Maher, 1987c; Maher & Tetreault, 1994) I want to look at this question of “good teaching” and gender in relation to two issues: the treatment of girls in classrooms and the specific role of the teacher, and the teacher’s authority, in progressive and feminist pedagogical theory. The following vignette is an excerpt from the dissertation of a colleague, Carla Rensenbrink, who studied three self-described feminist elementary school teachers.1 In her portrait of one second grade class, she included the following story, written by several girls and then read aloud to their classmates. Here is the story as the girls read it, and the others’ reactions:

The Nightcrawler

it was a Rainy night.

the nightcrawler Was sleeping and he woke up,

he hraed a skreme. (sic)

He ran over. all the way to the 4th floor but it was to late—

the Killr jumped out the window.

Chap. 2 got to find out who that was

He looked everywere but he cudent fined the killr

and then he fined a warehouse and went in he saw

Guns and pistols and.

he saw him he was smelling he was the human fly he.

siad a fight to the finish. they fought and fought and

fought. and the human fly fataied away, and

after that we never saw the human fly again.

—By Dolores and Rosie.

The following discussion ensued:

Karl: It’s different from the Barbie (books) you usually write.

Tom: Girls don’t usually write about guns and violence.

Reggie: (half to himself) Boys are violent. Why do you always make books together?

Neil: What’s wrong with that?

Newman: Did you think of the idea together?

Karl: I like the title.

Harold: I like to see a change. I’d like to see boys writing different kinds of books.

Brianna: What made you think of it?

Rosie and Dolores: (together, finishing each other’s sentences): we worked on it a long time. We wanted to do something different. We wanted to make a book that had action in it.

Ned: What are his powers?

Rosie and Dolores: He can jump rope through a third story window. He can make a sword come out of his hand.

Vic: I like the book. At first I thought it was copied, but it wasn’t. I like how you found a book you could agree on together.

Newman: Was it like phasing? (?)

Rosie and Dolores: What’s that? (Several boys chime in to explain a word they all seem to know.)

Boy: Can he teleport?

Rosie: What is that? (Again, several attempts by the boys to explain.)

Rosie: He goes through walls and comes back to life.

Larry: You just don’t get it, Rosie. (Rensenbrink, 1995, pp. 81–83)

This disputed attempt of two girls to write stories the way boys would, stories in which “action” is a euphemism for violence and girls’ activities must somehow take supernatural forms to be valid, exemplify a quandary for women’s education on the whole. The image of using a jump rope to reach a third story window suggests the paradox of locating females within the learning trajectory of Western educational thought. Does the student-centered and broadly inclusive nature of progressive education, laid out by John Dewey and sworn to by successive generations of “progressive” teachers, address this paradox? Or does it provide another universalizing narrative, another “regime of truth,” whose practices silence some students and teachers in the name of including everyone under a universalized rhetoric of social and educational progress?

This vignette may be read very positively as girls and boys exploring their imaginations together. The teacher is a facilitator and doesn’t need to speak. The kids are teaching each other. While boys dominate the discussion and a few are contemptuous, others, like Karl, Neil, and Vic, even like the story and the collaborative authorship. If progressive educational theory and practices are benign or neutral when dealing with the diversities represented by girls and boys, or by students from different backgrounds, then theoretical silences about gender, race, class, and cultural “difference” and oppression may not be so significant.

However, blind spots in the theoretical assumptions themselves may translate to classroom practices of inequality. This story could also be read as a lesson in male power. “Jumping rope” is deployed not to weave girls’ friendships on the ground but to “leap tall buildings with a single bound”; Harold’s desire to see boys write other kinds of stories is ignored, and several boys treat the girls with a mixture of condescension and exclusion—you can’t write such stories if you don’t know what “teleporting” is, and girls shouldn’t try to write such stories anyway. Moreover, are there other ways to read the teacher’s “facilitating” absence? If boys are dominating and some are demeaning these girls, would it perhaps ultimately be more “democratic” or equitable for the teacher to intervene, to encourage more girls to speak or even lend support to the other boys? How does progressive educational theory deal with the active deployment of the teacher’s, particularly the female teacher’s, authority?

Although initially most struck by the boys’ misogyny here, I have recently noticed the teacher’s silence. Why have I often felt so powerless in my own teaching career, caught between things that students said or did that I thought were wrong, even harmful, and the idea that I should be always “facilitative” and “democratic”? Looking back over my own training as a high school social studies teacher in the mid-1960s through the help of recent conversations with colleagues, I was recently reminded that my own models for democratic, student-centered teaching were all male.2 Reading the famous triumvirate of Kohl, Kozol, and Herndon, I learned subliminally that all truly great teachers inspire their urban, disruptive students with a love of learning through their own deep sensitivity, respect for the students, and antiestablishment values (see Kozol, 1967; Kohl, 1967; Herndon, 1968). Their authority is thus a kind of magic; early failures are overcome through the teachers’ idealistic commitments to the students. Meanwhile, the villains of their stories are all those authoritarian, racist female teachers, archetypical spinsters, who incidentally presumably remained behind while these three all left the classroom, wrote their books, and became new (male) authorities themselves for the education of (female) neophytes. My supervisors and professors, also all male, displayed a combative, Socratic inquiry model of teaching well suited to the debates they taught us to run, but not much else. Issues of discipline were to be resolved by holding the students’ attention through the power of topics relevant to their lives, topics that were never, incidentally, about women’s lives. I almost left teaching after my failure as a student teacher to realize my heroes’ ideals in my own seventh grade classroom, where the students rowdily resisted my carefully contrived “Socratic” lessons on the Industrial Revolution.

I became a high school social studies teacher nevertheless and have now been for seventeen years a teacher educator and a professor of education and women’s studies. I have had to think about the justifications for my own classroom choices and behaviors, and also help my students, mostly female, think about theirs. I have written before about issues relating to feminism, Socratic teaching, and social studies, and also about feminism and the teacher’s authority. Mary Kay Tetreault’s and my book, The Feminist Classroom, has a chapter on “Authority,” to which I will return below (see Maher, 1987a, 1987b; Maher & Tetreault, 1994). But I have always unconsciously assumed that my problems with pedagogical authority lay in my own flawed practices, rather than with the theoretical assumptions of progressive education with which I was trained. This essay is an attempt on my part to revisit those theories with the lenses provided by feminist educational theory and practice, to see whether and how their silences about gender and other forms of power have operated to silence and confuse as well as liberate and encourage. Today there may be new assumptions about the authority needed and employed by progressive and student-centered, but also feminist, teachers that can help us actively challenge societal inequalities when they appear in our classrooms.

The essay is in four parts. I first address some problems with the application of progressive educational theory to gender issues today, problems that I think can be applied to other forms of societal, and student, inequality as well. I then focus on a topic that holds specific problems for women teachers, namely the teacher’s authority in the classroom. To pursue this question I first look briefly at the legacy of Dewey himself, particularly in relation to his writings on women and women teachers, and then at some examples of feminist educators’ struggles with this issue. Finally, using examples from a few classrooms, I argue that thinking about gender and other aspects of difference as forms of unequal power relations can help reframe the grounds for the teacher’s authority, giving her (or him) grounds for active intervention in the power dynamics of the classroom in the name of a reformulation of democratic teaching.


To raise questions about differences of social power in the classroom suggests the need for attention to the particular nature of the gender relationships encoded in the frameworks of progressive education. I want to examine the masculine-feminine dichotomies in progressive educational theory, the male-female dynamics in progressive educational practice, and the relation between these two. It is not just that males, like the kids in the class above, are more powerful, have louder voices, and get paid more attention by teachers (see for example Martin, 1994; Orenstein, 1994; Sadker & Sadker, 1994; Stein, 1995, to name just a few examples from a broad literature). My readings of three feminist theoreticians, Jane Roland Martin, Valerie Walkerdine, and Jane Miller, have convinced me that progressive educational theory deploys the late nineteenth century dichotomies of masculine and feminine, updated by Freud in the twentieth century, to articulate the basis of its own project. For Dewey, and many of his followers, a key educational goal was societal harmony and the achievement of unity: the unity of the home and the school, the unity of the child’s experiences with the academic disciplines, and the unity of the heart and the mind in the service of educating the whole child for the good of the whole community. As Jane Roland Martin has recently pointed out, however, the direction of this effort was to create “the citizen, the worker, the individual,” not the family member, the parent, the keeper of the home—those activities traditionally associated with women (Martin, 1994, p. 231). When Dewey linked the experience of the child to the academic disciplines, the direction of that link was clear—education was to move “from the child’s present experience out into that represented by the organized bodies of truth that we call studies. . . . The various studies are themselves experiences, they are that of the [human] race. They embody the cumulative outcome of the efforts, the strivings and the successes of the human race generation after generation” (Dewey in Dworkin, ed., 1959, p. 97). It is they who will enable the educator to “interpret the child’s present puttings forth and falling away, in the light of some larger growth process in which they have their place.” Thus the child’s present experience, initially organized by sentiment, would be developed in the direction provided by the “organized bodies of truth” represented by the academic disciplines.

Many of us would of course now take issue with the consensual assumptions of what constitutes knowledge here. But there is a deeper issue. Much thinking about gender, even by feminists until quite recently, has been governed by the unquestioned framework of a dichotomous split between public and private spheres, with women relegated to the home and given responsibility for caring, the emotions, morality and so forth, and men being given public lives and power.3 Formulations like Dewey’s reflect an unstated assumption that inasmuch as education represents a developmental journey from the private to the public sphere as children grow, education itself is “masculine.” As Jane Roland Martin puts it, “Educators tend to think of becoming educated not just as a process of acquiring new ways of thinking, feeling and acting. They also assume that it is a matter of casting off the attitudes and values, the patterns of thought and action, associated with domesticity” (Martin, 1994, p. 234; italics mine). In such formulations, home and family become naturalized. They are not arenas themselves to be improved or illuminated through education, but rather the starting points the very distance from which measures progress, the “nature” from which “culture” distinguishes itself as superior.

Many thinkers now assert that we should indeed include these issues in our curriculum and our classroom practice, explicitly adding Martin’s “Three C’s” of care, concern and connection to the progressive agenda. Nell Noddings has shown how themes of caring and nurturance—“for self, for intimate others . . . for the natural and human-made worlds”—could transform the curriculum by tackling pressing societal issues in an interdisciplinary way (Noddings, 1995, p. 675; see also Noddings, 1992). And Dewey himself wanted to bring activities once located in the home to the school setting, because the Industrial Revolution had destroyed the home as a setting of productive work (see Martin, p. 235). Dewey argued eloquently for beginning with the experience of the whole child, noting that “not truth, but affection and sympathy is the keynote of his world” (Dewey, in Dworkin, ed., 1959, p. 92).

However, as the work of Martin and many other researchers have shown, such an “add women’s concerns and stir” approach is not enough. One problem, noted above and cited also in feminists’ dealings with Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogies, is that “the child,” or “the oppressed,” is not a singular or a universal. Not only are children different, but their differences represent and replicate societal power arrangements in the classroom. Thus the “oppressed,” as a male worker or as a white woman, will often also be an oppressor—of females, or people of color (see Maher, 1987c; Weiler, 1991). To simply encourage the expression of everyone’s experiences, or voices, is in fact often to encourage the more privileged voices, and often to contain the marginalized voices within the terms set by the most privileged—as in the storytelling above (see Maher & Tetreault, 1997). As Carmen Luke puts it, after making a similar case about the masculinist bias of Dewey’s emphasis on the public sphere,

To grant equal classroom time to female students, to democratize the classroom speech situation . . . does not alter theoretically or practically those gendered structural divisions upon which liberal capitalism and its knowledge industries are based. (Luke, 1992, p. 37)

Valerie Walkerdine asserts the inadequacy of a simple inclusionary agenda by examining the deep-seated Oedipal basis of a classroom dynamics organized around the enabling teacher-mother, the son whose activities she encourages, and the daughter whom she represses or ignores. She thereby documents the connection between the masculine and feminine in progressive educational theory and the treatment of boys and girls in practice. She shows why expanding the curriculum to include “home and family” topics and the values of caring, concern and connection, or even simply giving equal attention to girls in the classroom, will fail as long as the essentialized gendered dichotomy between male and female, public and private is not itself deconstructed. The key issue is not unity, no matter how inclusive of difference, but the practices and relationships of power (Walkerdine, 1994; see also Walkerdine, 1990).

Looking in one classroom at the ways in which teachers described girls as doing badly at math even when doing well, and the unsuccessful boys as having “real understanding” even when they didn’t, she began to examine the continuous construction and reconstruction of the binary categories assumed as a given by Martin within this classroom, and the ways in which girls were constantly repressed as a result. Girls’ prowess in mathematics was always discounted, usually by explaining it as a result of hard work and being dutiful rather than brains or “brilliance,” which was the “real” basis of mathematical performance. Poorly performing boys on the other hand had “potential.”

Very, very hard worker. Not a particularly bright girl . . . her hard work gets her to her standards. (Whereas) Can just about write his own name. Not because he’s not clever, but because he can’t sit still . . . very disruptive, but quite bright. (Walkerdine, 1994, quoted in Stone, ed., 1994, p. 58)

Walkerdine argues that in child-centered pedagogies, the “child” is a construct, who develops within a “facilitating environment.”

Furthermore this opposition of the passive teacher to the active child is necessary to support the possibility of the illusion of autonomy and control upon which child-centered pedagogy is founded. The capacity for nurturance becomes the basis for women’s fitness for the facilitation of knowing and the reproduction of the knower, which is the support for, and yet opposite of, the production of knowledge. (Walkerdine, p. 61)

Women support knowers; they cannot themselves be knowers. Moreover, while the progressive classroom provides an overt message of activity and exploration, there is a parallel covert message demanding good behavior, neatness, and so on, qualities which, while overtly pathologized, are also desired, even required in girls. Girls’ success (in rote-learning and rule-following) “while the object of much agonising about their poor performance, is precisely that combination which is required for the entry of girls into the caring professions, in this case specifically the profession of teaching young children” (Walkerdine, 1961, p. 61).

But why, as in our introductory story above, are girls actively resisted when they try to be active, to excel, to play in the same games? Walkerdine gives a psychodynamic spin to Martin’s general point, saying that success, achievement in the public sphere, including mathematical prowess and “potential,” are all defined by their opposites, by what they are not, namely feminine, or female. “The rational self is a profoundly masculine one from which the woman is excluded . . . the ‘thinking’ subject is male; the female provides the biological prop to procreation and to servicing the possibility of ‘man.’” Or, again, women represent the “nature” that male “culture” transcends. To allow actual women the same kind of success threatens men’s control of a calculable universe, which covers a “desperate fear and desire of the other, woman” (Walkerdine, pp. 59, 63). Martin quotes a young woman’s complaint:

Sometimes I feel like saying that I disagree, that there are other ways of looking at it, but where would that get me? My teacher thinks I’m showing off, and the boys jeer. But if I pretend I don’t understand, it is very different. The teacher is sympathetic and the boys are helpful. (Spender, 1980, quoted in Martin, 1994, p. 237).

Walkerdine suggests that it is not just that progressive educational theory is belied by improper, insensitive practices but that the theory and common practices are inextricably linked, at least in their assumptions about gender and their treatment of boys and girls. We need to rethink our pedagogy of “equity” and universal inclusiveness, which treats diversity as a matter of life-spicing variety and posits inclusiveness as a panacea for “difference.” We need a pedagogy in which the ideals of unity and inclusion are linked to actively challenging the barriers to these ideals posed by the gendered, raced, and classed relationships of power in the classroom. In order to articulate such a pedagogy, we have to look at the teacher. If societal power relationships will be replicated inside the classroom unless they are actively resisted and reframed, who but the teacher can lead such reformulations?

I therefore turn now to the issue of the teacher’s authority in progressive and feminist educational theory in order to ask several questions. What was Dewey’s contribution to the construction of the authority of the teacher within progressive educational theory? How have commonly understood ideals of “democratic” and “facilitative” teaching operated in this regard? How has the model of a female teacher, one who supports others’ learning but lacks the capacity to “know” for herself, affected our assumptions about teachers’ roles? What is being said today by feminist educational theorists about the teacher’s authority? And, finally, what have actual teachers said about this issue?


While it is far beyond the intent of this essay to explore either the wide range of John Dewey’s writings on philosophy and education or the complex legacies of his and his followers’ general influences on educational thought and practice, I wanted to see what he thought about these questions. I decided accordingly to concentrate on looking for scholarly work on Dewey and women, and Dewey and teachers on the one hand, and on the other for references to women, gender, and teaching in representative texts of his own. The little I found was suggestive to me. Dewey was an ardent proponent of women’s rights and an enthusiastic supporter and intellectual beneficiary of the work of women teachers, particularly during his years in Chicago before he moved to Columbia Teachers College. Describing the profound influence on him of such powerful women as Jane Addams, Ella Flagg Young and his wife, Alice Chipman Dewey, Jo Ann Boydston writes of Dewey’s commitments to coeducation, to women’s suffrage, and to full legal, educational, and commercial equality. She quotes him as saying, “In the US, even in the profession of teaching, women suffer from enormous handicaps in everything except the subordinate and poorly paid positions; the better, more responsible positions are largely closed to them” (Boydston, 1975, pp. 442, 447). Charlene Siegfried, in her recent Feminism and Pragmatism, remarks also that Dewey recognized and celebrated some of the possible ethical and educational implications of women’s full entry into the public life, quoting him as predicting in 1930 that “the growing freedom of women can hardly have any other outcome than the production of more realistic and more human morals” (Siegfried, 1996, p. 100).

However, while Siegfried’s book shows some deep connections between the feminist epistemological stance of learning and knowing as embedded in relationships and the social side of pragmatism, she also points out that Dewey and other contemporary thinkers, in their advocacy of a universal humanism, neglected to give specific attention to feminist issues. In particular they ignored the oppression of women, and the ways in which an emphasis on the universal “human” obscures the gendered nature of peoples’ experiences of power and domination. She remarks that “while the male Chicago pragmatists in particular supported women’s rights and incorporated many of their women colleagues’ and students’ insights into their own writings, they did not develop or incorporate a specific critique of sexism.” The result was on the one hand an absence of feminist issues as part of pragmatic discourse, and therefore as part of the discipline of philosophy, and on the other “the failure of the women pragmatists to develop a specifically feminist theory of oppression” (Siegfried, pp. 104–105).

Thus Dewey’s support for women might be read as his support for the broadening of his definition of the social and of community to include the particular experiences and sensitivities that women would bring upon their entry into the public sphere, including the classroom. In his collaborative work and writing with women teachers and administrators at the Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, he argued that “elementary school teachers should have the same rights as university professors to develop the subject matter of their teaching and to invent and use their own methods of instruction” (Siegfried, p. 197).

However, this attentiveness to teachers and to the unfolding of pedagogical theory in the actual classrooms of women teachers was apparently not to be maintained in the later development of progressive educational theory. In an interesting recent piece exploring Dewey’s relationship with the feminist activist and education reformer Ella Flagg Young, Ellen Lagemann asserts that Young convinced Dewey to offer “freedom and intellectual cooperation” to the teachers at the Laboratory School, rather than “supervision” and “technical training”; i.e., to treat them as peers and colleagues. He wrote that “[i]t was from her that I learned that respect for freedom means regard for the inquiring or reflective processes of individual [teachers].” However, Lagemann argues that this sensitivity did not outlast their relationship, which was attenuated by his move to New York City and Teachers College. She says that his later masterwork, Democracy and Education, reflecting his distance from classroom settings, provided a “lengthy discussion of school curricula but rarely mentioned teachers” (Lagemann, 1996, p. 181). This failure to emphasize the significance of teachers, she asserts, “helped skew the interpretation of his thought and limited the practical value of his philosophy” (Lagemann, p. 173).

Lagemann’s concern with this neglect was twofold. First, ignoring teachers means ignoring the “necessary conditions for democratic education” that involve explicit attention to teachers’ concerns, namely “freedom, respect, equal pay, classroom autonomy, and intellectually challenging professional training” (italics mine). Second, she points out that Dewey failed later on to critique the growth of the university-based science of education, whose advocates “were helping to create and legitimate hierarchical relationships between the mostly male professors who were to generate knowledge about education and the mostly female teachers who were to apply that knowledge” (Lagemann, p. 181). Thus, however strong Dewey’s earlier commitments and debts to women’s roles in education, the figure of the teacher, particularly the innovative and authoritative female teacher, seemed to drop out of later progressive educational theorizing, although the history of the development and impact of this theorizing has yet, I believe, to be written.4


What has been the nature of contemporary attention to the woman teacher as authority figure? As mentioned already, because the elementary teacher is usually constructed as a woman, and usually is a woman, her role tends to be theorized as that of the relatively passive, nurturing, enabling female “other” of the “active” masculinized child. Her own position is naturalized and essentialized; the positive exercise of her authority and its problematics, including both her powers and her responsibilities, is minimized or even erased altogether. Thus Walkerdine points out that the educational goal of rational argument requires the transformation of social conflict into a manageable discourse such that “the nurturer facilitates the illusion of autonomy and control by the other, rendering invisible the power of parenting and teaching” (Walkerdine, p. 66; italics mine). Of course progressive and child-centered teachers do exercise authority, but that authority is a vexing problem for many, associated in their minds with the more traditional classroom settings they want to avoid.

In what ways is this invisibility specifically gendered? I was particularly struck by the parallels here between what Lagemann finds, or fails to find, in Dewey and in the analyses offered by Martin and Walkerdine. Martin underscores the neglect of home and family in the curriculum, sees this as an attack on women’s concerns, and documents the sexism of male students, but she does not explore the significance of these mysogynies for the profoundly gendered construction of the elementary teacher’s role. For Martin, as for Dewey, the curriculum and the students are the main concern, not the agency of the person who brings them together.

Walkerdine, for her part, explores in another, earlier essay the ways in which progressive educational theory disempowers women teachers. While she writes about England rather than the U.S., the parallels are striking. Reflecting Foucault’s work on the ideological frameworks defining modern institutional structures, she argues that beginning in the nineteenth century, educational and other institutions replaced traditional physical discipline with scientifically based ideas of “normal behavior” as a means of promoting and controlling the development of “docile citizens.” Socialization, formerly based on the imposition of external authority, would become “education according to nature,” which then came to mean “according to a science of human nature.” The advent of naturalism, that is, “the ensuring of a correct passage from animal infant to civilized adult, became understood both as ‘progressive’—according to scientific principles—and effective: it would prevent threatened rebellions precisely because children who were not coerced would not need to rebel” (Walkerdine, 1992, p. 17). Noting that these developments were accompanied historically by the transformation of teaching from a male to a female career, she argues that “through the figure of the maternal teacher, the harsh power of the authoritarian father will be converted into the soft benevolence of the teacher-mother” (p. 16).

Walkerdine, who confesses at the beginning of this piece that she too was reared on Kohl and others, paints a portrait of the ideal, nurturing, progressive classroom environment, where “all can grow properly” (p. 20). And she makes no mistake about the victims of these idealized, child-centered classrooms. They are women teachers:

At what cost the fantasy of liberation? I suggest that the cost is borne by the teacher, as it is borne by the mother. She is passive to the boy’s active, she works to his play . . . It is the female teacher who is to contain [his] irrationality and to transform it into reason, where it can do no harm—a transformation of physical violence into the symbolic violence of mastery, the law. And in each case, the woman as container soaks up and contains the irrationality which she best understands.

Like mothers, teachers exist “naturally”; given responsibility for the child’s growth, they are denied an active authority to bring that growth about. In these classrooms, Walkerdine says, “There is a denial of pain, of oppression, and there is also a denial of power, as though the helpful teacher did not wield any” (p. 20).

In a recent book on women teachers, Jane Miller examines more closely the effects of these contradictory expectations—of enabling nurturance and active authority—on women teachers themselves. She begins her book by saying:5

Whereas most societies have held back from educating girls, they have relied on women in a variety of ways to educate their children, and that in turn has unsettled the notion of what a teacher is, making it simultaneously honored and despised as a social role. (Miller, 1996, p. 1)

A key aspect of this ambivalence and ambiguity has been the relegation of teacher training to an inferior status in the academy, where many believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that teaching “can’t be taught”; like mothering, it is “natural” and naturalized, something women do instinctively and are instinctively good at, because they “love children.” Beneath this appreciation lurks contempt, as Jane Martin has suggested above, for if something is natural rather than learned, if it cannot benefit from education and cultivation, then it cannot be worth much. And within this contempt lies a fear of empowering women as genuine agents in their work with children, or in any other profession. Therefore education courses are often collections of techniques, imposed by male supervisors and based on externally driven research questions, and the whole question of the teacher’s authority becomes confounded with, trivialized, and buried by the main issue of concern to outside powers, namely the maintenance of “classroom discipline.” Miller argues:

For if teachers are not to be thought of as intellectual workers, they are also not to be given help with those aspects of the job which deflect from a concentration on the (narrowly defined) subject matter which they teach. And that denial rings with the kinds of contempt meted out to the job of running families. As if the flexibility, the knowledge and the judgment required to carry out the job (of teaching) were the outcome of instinctive, innate capacities in women, rather than the result of thought, planning, experience discussion with others, and—very importantly—a collection of competencies which must be capable of developing productively over time. (Miller, 1996, p. 106)

In any case we might argue that progressive educational theory constructs the teacher/child dyad in a reversal of traditional educational theory, replacing the powerful teacher with the powerful child but leaving the oppositions themselves unchallenged. In progressive educational theory, as noted above, the facilitative teacher, with little ground to claim an authority that is often seen as illegitimately restricting the free-ranging child, is called on nevertheless to be fair and equitable, so as to be inclusive of all students. And yet the teacher, particularly as a female, may often be at a loss for bases to construct her relationships with students to ensure this fairness to all. Thus her relative passivity in the name of facilitation actually leaves in place and reinforces the power relations brought into the classroom from the outside society. Walkerdine points out that working-class children and black children, not to mention, of course, girls, fare less well than others in these settings, since they often fail to measure up to the construct of the “ideal child” (Walkerdine, 1992, p. 20). Miller writes about the “ambiguities” women teachers still face in conceptualizing their role in schools: “their uneasiness as educational theorists, their backing into pastoral positions in schools, and their frequent reluctance to name and stand by their authority, knowledge and expertise as teachers” (Miller, p. 246).

Rereading Walkerdine’s article for this essay I was also struck by the connection between its analysis of the psychosocial sources of female teachers’ powerlessness and the enthusiastic valorization of these same female qualities in much of the feminist thought of the mid-1980s. In the works of Gilligan, Belenky et al., Jane Martin (also quoted above from a later work), and many others, traditional female characteristics such as nurturance were rehabilitated as strengths and virtues to be applied to moral and philosophical reasoning, cognitive development, political and social commitments, and, not least, to educational theory and practice (see for example Gilligan, 1982; Belenky et al., 1986; Martin, 1985).6 In my own earlier essays and those of others, the “ideal feminist teacher,” as well, was constructed as collaborative, relational, and devoted to the explication of the connections between thought and feeling, personal and political, experience and theory, connections also espoused by Dewey and his followers (see for example Maher, 1985; Culley & Portuges, 1985).

But in excavating and celebrating such qualities of “the feminine,” this body of work, while often partially acknowledging teachers’ rootedness in unequal societal power relations, failed to engage with the contradictions created when claims were then made to a specifically female authority, autonomy, and power in the classroom. How were feminist academics, for example, to balance the desire for sharing experiences jointly and giving students power over their own learning with the responsibilities that come with grading, the enforcement of academic “standards,” and, in the case of higher education, the achievement of the personal intellectual stature required for tenure? As Kathleen Weiler puts it,

The institutionally imposed authority of the teacher within a hierarchical university structure [means that] the teacher must give grades and is evaluated by administrators and colleagues in terms of expertise in a body of knowledge, and [must] meet the goals of an academic course as it is understood by the wider university. This hierarchical structure is clearly in opposition to the collective goals of a common women’s movement and is miles from the early, structureless consciousness raising groups in which each woman was an expert on her own life. (Weiler, 1991, reprinted in Woyshner & Gelfond, 1998, p. 130)

Moreover, feminist professors, like female teachers, need to articulate new grounds for their authority. Like Walkerdine and Miller, Weiler stresses the difficulty and importance of this task:

Another [issue] is the need for women to claim authority in a society that denies it to them. . . . the authority and power of the woman feminist teacher is already in question from many of her students precisely because she is a woman. (Weiler, 1991, reprinted in Weyshner & Gelfond, 1998, p. 130).


How can women teachers, then, from elementary school onward, learn to inhabit positions of authority that empower us as agents in our own professional lives and at the same time are put to the service of all students’ learning? I have been suggesting here that progressive pedagogies, particularly in their “child-centered” aspects, ignore the power relations between and among teachers and their students that problematize their goals of “unity” and “inclusion”—not to mention those power relations among teachers and their administrators, their university advisors, and the male writers offered up as their models. But I am not therefore suggesting that teachers must reclaim an outworn authority based simply on a notion of prior knowledge, experience, or academic expertise and arbitrarily impose their agendas, no matter how “fair,” onto children. To bring together the issues of classroom power and difference among teachers and students, discussed earlier, with the specific issue of the teachers’ authority, I turn to new pedagogical approaches articulated by several theorists of feminist pedagogy. These approaches are based on the active construction of classroom relationships by teachers and students together. Carmen Luke, in Australia, calls for a “foundation of difference,” Kathleen Weiler describes a “feminist pedagogy of difference,” and Mary Kay Tetreault and I, in our recent book The Feminist Classroom, articulate the bases for what we call “pedagogies of positionality” (Luke, 1992; Weiler, 1991; Maher & Tetreault, 1994).

What is a pedagogy of positionality, and how does it differ from one emphasizing inclusiveness, or child-centeredness, or equity? Most social differences in Western thought, in progressive educational theory as elsewhere, are traditionally cast as dualisms with one side being the less powerful, although the power relationships that set up the dualism in the first place are typically ignored. Thus we have male/female, black/white, and teacher/child, to name a few, and “inclusionary” pedagogical theories that then attempt to bring them together, transcend the differences, or in the case of teacher/child, suggest a reversal of the power relationship altogether. Each of these subjects, moreover, is assumed to have qualities that form the essence of an essentialized “identity,” in today’s parlance.

One of the great contributions of post-modern approaches within feminism and other fields of social thought has been to challenge the essentialism of such binary oppositions within much of cultural feminist theory, showing that our identities and subjectivities are multiple, changing, and always constructed in relation to others. So, too, with our “authorities.” Classroom authority thus need not only be theorized as a finite entity to be won by either teachers or students, or even split between them. Rather it may be viewed as an ongoing process of active participation and negotiation; as Diana Fuss said of “experience,” “authority” is always constructed, never “found” (Fuss, 1989). In positional pedagogies, differences of authority—as well as those of gender, learning styles, cultural and class backgrounds, and other variables that students and teachers bring to the classroom—are not viewed as fixed “identities” that must be transcended, included, or even bridged. Rather they are markers for shifting relationships of power whose dynamics themselves are at the center of curricular and pedagogic attention. Rather than being viewed as stumbling blocks to be avoided, the examination of these differences and relationships, called by some the “spaces between,” is the place to begin. The goal is not to replicate these power relationships but to challenge and change them: to ask more girls to comment on Dolores’ and Rosie’s story, and to ask Harold what kinds of new stories he thinks boys might write.

The teacher’s authority is not set in opposition to the child’s “freedom,” but seen as a set of relations that can be acknowledged, as grounded in teachers’ and students’ evolving (and various) connections to each other, the curriculum, and the classroom and societal setting. For our feminist professor informants in The Feminist Classroom, as for many “progressive” and “feminist” teachers, authority was a particular problem; if the teacher is no longer the conveyer of traditional and hierarchical values, if moreover she is a woman, what are the grounds for her authority in the classroom? Our participants tended to base their authority autobiographically and contextually, as the outgrowth of their own work and experience, “consciously positioning themselves as knowers and learners for their students” so that their students could learn to become authorities for their own learning (Maher & Tetreault, 1994, chap. 5, p. 128). Similarly Kathleen Weiler says that “the authority of the feminist teacher as intellectual and theorist finds expression in the goal of making students themselves theorists of their own lives by interrogating and analyzing their own experiences” (Weiler, 1991, quoted in Woyshner & Gelfond, 1998, p. 131). Jane Miller describes a teacher whose female students:

are reading and writing romances [and] taking them seriously as readers and writers . . . [S]uch teaching is part of a carefully theorized account of language and learning and teaching [and] teaching itself becomes handmaiden or critic to wider processes. The technologies are subordinate to what may be constructed in active, committed and shared classroom encounters and to ways in which these moments in peoples’ lives may be described and theorized. (Miller, 1996, p. 118–119)

The resulting construction of classroom knowledge is not hierarchical but always contextualized—and evolving. With pedagogies of positionality, the teacher both acknowledges and interrogates her authority as a key aspect of the relations of difference and possibility in her classroom.


I was curious whether teacher practices ever reflected the quite contrasting approaches discussed here, namely a facilitative, inclusionary stance vis-à-vis a more critical attitude towards gendered power relationships. Let us look at the classrooms of two white, female feminist teachers, the first of whom is the teacher whose students told my introductory story. I have selected these teachers in order to show the importance of peoples’ theoretical assumptions, no matter how unconscious or conscious, for their pedagogical and curriculum choices. I could have selected many other cases and stories (see, for example, Rose, 1995, and the magazine Rethinking Schools). I could also have emphasized different aspects of the stories of these two teachers. Moreover, one teaches second grade and the other teaches middle school, and I am drawing from outside observation in the first case and from self-report in the second. These two are both white women, and indeed the theoretical models discussed above have been built on and assumed the whiteness of the female (and male) teachers and students. I believe these issues are equally relevant when the teachers are white and some or all of there students are “of color.” When the teacher is a woman of color, however, the issues are very different, since African American women teachers, in particular, have different issues with their authority than do white women (see Delpit, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 1994; and Rensenbrink, 1995). But that is another discussion. In each case below, I have chosen examples of the teacher’s responses to students’ behaviors, both in order to bring in students and to look at specific moments entailed in exercising different kinds of authority as a feminist.

The first teacher, one of three portrayed in Carla Rensenbrink’s dissertation, decided one day to give her second grade class some free time, so two boys headed for the block corner:

Tom: We’re going to have a boys’ side and a girls’ side.

Teacher: You have to split the materials.

Tom: (To some girls who are there in the block corner): You can have these.

Lucy: Wait. You don’t get to decide who gets what.

Rosie: [of “Nightcrawler” fame] I don’t want to have a girls’ side and a boys’ side.

(After distractions and bickering, shelves are split up and marked off by the kids, BOYS and GIRLS, after which the boys divide all the equipment. Squabbles continue over sharing different sizes of blocks, wall space, and floor space. Several boys are told, “Get off the girls’ side,” and at one point the girls divide the space by masking tape, taking 2/3 for themselves.)

Teacher: Why don’t you all measure the perimeter?

Rensenbrink comments afterward: “When I talked to [the teacher] a few days later, I learned that the block corner had been a source of constant conflict. The boys were stealing the girls’ blocks and the kids were complaining. Soon afterwards she rearranged the room and the blocks were reintegrated in. [But] she appeared to sanction the girl-boy division” (Rensenbrink, 1995, pp. 85–86).

According to Rensenbrink, this teacher’s style was “informal, busy, varied. She put great emphasis on writing and on publishing children’s writing. She was very interested in feminist issues,” (p. 37) and deplored the tendencies of boys to dominate classroom discourse. Indeed this teacher said she worried about gender issues all the time. (p. 81.) But she tended to address her real concerns about the problem by unwittingly emphasizing gender splits and antagonisms in the class even as she strove for fairness. She often referred to the students as “boys and girls,” and she would mark a groups’ behavior by its gender, as in “you boys are being so rude,” rather than “you three are being so rude”; her alternation of books about boy and girl heroines, in spite of its attempts at fairness, often produced hostility and underscored traditional gender divisions.

Rensenbrink discusses this teacher’s feelings of powerlessness as a woman teacher, particularly in dealing with difficult boys, and her negative feelings toward acknowledging her own power and authority in the classroom. It is in relation to gender issues, in fact, that she feels most powerless. She is asked how, if she does not keep tight control of the discussions, will the girls get enough air time? “I am just very conscious of making sure the girls get their turn, but they need me to do that. I don’t want to encourage them to be more aggressive . . . I don’t want to have the kind of classroom where everybody has to be quiet and wait until they are acknowledged, so I don’t repress the boys” (p. 94).

This teacher had a particularly difficult class that year, with an unusually diverse group of students and many who were difficult to discipline—“the class from hell.” But as Rensenbrink notes, it seems as if she is also caught in multiple contradictions of the gendered dichotomies of teaching. She sees boys and girls as fundamentally different, even opposites, whose essentialized mutual hostility must be regulated since it cannot be overcome. She doesn’t want to “encourage the girls to be more aggressive,” and she allows single sex seating sometimes “because I don’t think it’s bad—especially for the girls. I don’t really like the idea of making them put up with all the shenanigans and nonsense they would have to if they sit with the boys” (p. 87).

Furthermore, her view of her own role as a powerless female and facilitating figure against the male “other,” and also against the traditional teacher “other,” makes it impossible for her to effectively intervene in the power dynamics she has helped to set up. She is trapped in the gender assumptions of her own consciously enabling, progressive pedagogy, and in its construction of the teacher’s role. In Rensenbrink’s analysis,

The salience of gender divisions in (this class) seemed inextricably entwined with issues of the teacher’s power in the classroom. To some degree she allowed these divisions to be expressed in the context of the classroom. She did not want to suppress them but she could not always deal with them either. This ambivalence seems symptomatic of her feelings about power, which has long been a loaded issue for white middle-class women teachers who are not expected to be familiar with power or to be acknowledged as persons with power, but are nevertheless required to exercise power in order to keep their classes in order. This teacher said, “There are sometimes students who think that they don’t need to listen to me because I’m a woman.” The values she was brought up with, of fairness, of politeness, of not showing your anger—are in conflict with the need to express her own feelings and control a difficult class. (pp. 91–2, 95; italics mine)

For this teacher, then, feelings about power, and the illegitimacy of her own authority, were profoundly gendered, and inextricably bound up with her struggles over the gendered power relations among her students.

The second teacher also regarded gender, as well as racial and cultural, equality as a main goal of her teaching, but she thought somewhat differently both about her own authority and about diversity, oppression, and equality in her classroom. Describing some student activity during a quilt project in her classroom, she remarks:

One of the first things that I notice is that only girls gravitate toward the ironing board, and only boys gravitate towards measuring and cutting. . . . I think about what to do about this. Finally I decide to ask Frank, my male colleague and friend, to drop by class and to casually start to help us by ironing. I am hoping that in modeling this behavior, he will give the boys permission to try it. The next day he comes in, admires all the activity, and asks the girls if he can help by ironing for a while. I go and help with the measuring and the cutting. Immediately, several boys gravitate to the ironing board and ask him if they can help. (Logan, 1993, p. 6)

Asking the boys how they could do it so well, she learned that they all ironed at home, and concluded that “they just needed a male role model to give them permission to do a ‘girls’ job’ in the public arena of the classroom.”

This teacher is Judy Logan, one of many participants in SEED, a well known and international project to include gender, racial, and cultural diversity in the curriculum, and she is the author of a book on her own struggles and achievements in this area. In Teaching Stories, she articulates a philosophy and a set of practices for an activist, constructivist approach to student growth. At the same time she fosters a classroom environment that overtly seeks to challenge and overturn inequalities brought in from the larger society. About gender divisions she says,

In order to keep teaching about gender from falling into the males versus females trap, I believe it is important to begin by letting students focus on their own attitudes and feelings. Students need to realize their own habits of stereotyping before they can understand them in the larger society. Like attitudes about race and class, attitudes about gender are sometimes invisible, and we can’t analyze them or begin to change them unless we make them visible. (Logan, p. 21)

She has the students take a journey back in time to themselves at various ages, and then has them imagine what it would be like to be the other gender. In the discussion, she tells the girls to listen to the boys, and vice versa, so that “we can begin to understand what they think being female (or male) is all about.” When they read then an article about societal sexism, they can begin to think about its implications for their own lives:

Because we began this lesson with our own experiences, students are less able to dismiss the information. They can begin to own the problem, that our culture projects clear stereotypes onto people of each sex . . . and the advantages are clearly perceived to be primarily for males, and the disadvantages primarily to females. The students then participate in class activities on gender more fully. . . . I believe that this kind of personal introduction to gender-inclusive curriculum is essential. We need to acknowledge that gender systems are about us, all of us, males and females. Gender work is not just about bringing women into the curriculum. . . . It is about bringing our gender attitudes and experiences into focus. (pp. 22–24)

Although this is a sixth grade and not a second grade class, this example reveals an emphasis on deconstructing gender systems with students, rather than accepting them as given. More broadly, Judy Logan claims and articulates for the reader a proactive authority with her students. In a chapter devoted to describing her month-long quilting project, she clearly articulates the grounds for this in her respect for students’ knowledge and experience, saying that “in my twenty-five years of teaching middle school, one of my goals has been for my classroom to be a blend of some of the things I know, and some of the things my students know.” To that end, she thinks about her authority as continually negotiated with her students so as to ensure a wide inclusion of voices and perspectives, while simultaneously enlarging those perspectives. For the quilting project, which celebrated Womens’ History Month, students researched, wrote, cut, and sewed the lives of a wide diversity of women, famous and not, but also learned that boys could iron and girls could measure and cut. Logan says,

I think about my own guidelines on inclusive curriculum. As much as possible, if I control the content, I try to let the students control the form. If I control the form, I try to let students control the content. I think of this as the “have tos” and the “get tos.” As in yes, you have to do a quilt patch, and you have to do a woman. But you get to choose the woman you want to honor on this quilt, and you get to do your patch any way you want to. (p. 10)

What kind of a conversation could Judy Logan and this first teacher have about their respective classrooms? Perhaps the first teacher could use a notion of “have to” and “get to” to insert her own voice into the storytelling of her students. If they all “get to” write stories, perhaps they all “have to” experiment with different genres. If they “get to” run discussions on their own, perhaps they “have to” make sure that everyone in a small group has a chance to speak. More to the point, since both teachers are reconstructed for this telling, I can use the notions of “have to” and “get to,” the combinations of “some of the things I know” and “some of the things students know” to help my own students, prospective teachers all, articulate the grounds for their own classroom authority in terms of a forceful agenda of inclusive curricula and pedagogies.


In these brief vignettes I cannot hope to do justice to the complexities, differences, and commonalities in the worlds of the two teachers evoked in this study. First, the contrasts I am drawing between these teachers would certainly not entirely support the uses to which I am putting them here, namely the construction of a new conflict, a new “binary opposition,” in which pedagogies of positionality vie with progressive pedagogies to become the basis of a “true” feminist pedagogy. As feminists and consciously child-centered educators, the similarities between them probably outweigh their differences in comparison with teachers as a whole. However, my readings of the practices of these teachers, taken together with my readings on what is happening to girls in schools these days, suggests to me that Judy Logan is actively modifying certain central assumptions of, if I can call it this, “traditional” progressive educational theory, the same assumptions that are accepted by and very troubling for the first teacher. These assumptions, highly gendered, include a construct of the teacher as being known primarily for her facilitative and democratic and nurturing approaches rather than as an positive authority figure, a construct of the child as an active, seeking learner, and an image of boys as fitting this construct of the child and girls as docile and dutiful instead.

Rather than being stymied by such assumptions, Logan employed theoretical premises that claimed active authority for herself and rejected any immutability of gender roles in her classroom. These two premises are obviously connected, in that it takes an actively intervening teacher to disrupt the expectations that both boys and girls bring to the classroom setting. But precisely because she understood her classroom as a site of unequal power relationships reflecting those in the larger society, Logan actively deployed her authority to create environments structured and safe enough to challenge the status quos of inequality. By enforcing standards of fairness, she paradoxically gave students the freedom they needed to thrive.

However, such teachers need a power analysis to do this, and to see inequalities as matters of social constructions, rather than fixed identities, that a consciously structured classroom and school atmosphere can challenge and change. To the extent that progressive educational theory is enshrined and not critiqued, its pervasiveness as a model of “gender-blind,” not to mention race, class, and culture-blind, inclusiveness will blind us to what needs to be done to create genuinely inclusive classroom environments. If progressive pedagogies can be opened to the analyses and relationships of power offered by contemporary feminist and other thinkers, then both feminist teachers and their female (and male) students will benefit.

A final issue raised by positional pedagogies and the stories of these two teachers has to do with Lagemann’s points about the erasure of teachers in Dewey’s progressivism, which with Jane Miller’s and Valerie Walkerdine’s help we can see as a gendered move. Dewey’s ignoring of teachers “helps skew the interpretation of his thought and limited the practical value of his philosophy.” It meant failing to pay attention to the “necessary conditions for democratic education” that involve explicit attention to teachers’ concerns, namely “freedom, respect, equal pay, classroom autonomy, and intellectually challenging professional training.” It means understanding teaching to be more than technologies of delivery and control, demanding, in Miller’s words, “thought, planning, experience, discussion with others, and a collection of competencies that must be capable of developing productively over time.” It means examining and valuing the teachers’ various forms of authority. All of these skills and concerns have been thought unnecessary for women. Contemporary agendas for school reform and teacher education, by ignoring gender and issues of gender inequality when they discuss teaching, risk recapitulating these blindnesses and denials.

Finally, teachers may be authorities and supporters for each other, breaking down the isolation of classrooms that reinforces the false assumptions of individual teacher blame and responsibility. Judy Logan had teacher colleagues, parents, community artists, and other supporters helping her and her students with the quilt project. It is clear from most stories of successful teaching, if not from most of the accounts of gender bias in schools, that teachers need to be supported and respected rather than ignored or solely blamed for the conditions of their work. Recognizing the powers, responsibilities, and needs of teachers, bringing female teachers into the center of the discussion on gender in the schools, may be our most central concern today for the reworking of progressive “feminist” pedagogies.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 101 Number 1, 1999, p. 35-59
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10424, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:06:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Frances Maher
    Wheaton College
    E-mail Author
    Frances A. Maher is Professor of Education at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts, where she teaches education and Women’s Studies courses. She has published widely on the topic of feminist pedagogy and is co-author, with Mary Kay Tetreault, of The Feminist Classroom (Basic Books, 1994).
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