talking about gender in a class on women writers? CRAZY!

So, three years after graduating with an undergrad degree in English and political science, I’m finally back in the classroom and loving it.  I fear that my one “non-degree student” class may indeed lead to a degree, though I can’t make any decisions on such things until after December, when I find out where we’ll be spending the next 3 years of our lives.  Anyway, the class is ENGL517: Sex, Power, and Science in 18th Century Women’s Writing.  With Sex and Power in the title, I went into the class pumped to talk about feminist and gender theory, among other things.  I may have even geeked out a bit and pulled out my old Crit Theory text from undergrad to brush up a bit.  What can I say, I’m a nerd!  Anyway, apparently not everyone in my class expected to spend much time talking about gender, sex, and power.

Yesterday at The Pursuit of Harpyness, a blog I frequent, my friend Sarah.of.a.lesser.god did a post called “You Don’t Need to be a Woman to Study (Women’s) History,” about the dearth of men taking women’s studies classes.  On the first day of my class, I noticed that the room was filled with women, with one lone male student.  I hoped that he would be intelligent and willing to contribute a well-reasoned male perspective to our discussions, as I enjoy some good pushback in an academic discussion.  Ok, more accurately, I enjoy a good debate or argument.  However, after the second class, I’m pretty sure my high hopes for this guy were in vain.  Not only is he too timid to really share (which, really, is understandable, it’s intimidating to be the ONLY ONE), but when he does share, he pretty much reveals his ignorance (which, maybe this class is just the eye-opener he needs!).

For class yesterday, we read a poem by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, called “A Nocturnal Reverie.”  Here’s the poem:

In such a night, when every louder wind
Is to its distant cavern safe confined;
And only gentle Zephyr fans his wings,
And lonely Philomel, still waking, sings;
Or from some tree, famed for the owl’s delight,
She, hollowing clear, directs the wanderer right;
In such a night, when passing clouds give place,
Or thinly veil the heaven’s mysterious face;
When in some river overhung with green,
The waving moon and trembling leaves are seen;
When freshened grass now bears itself upright,
And makes cool banks to pleasing rest invite
Whence springs the woodbind and the bramble-rose,
And where the sleepy cowslip sheltered grows;
Whilst now a paler hue the foxglove takes,
Yet chequers still with red the dusky brakes;
When scattered glow-worms, but in twilight fine,
Show trivial beauties, watch their hour to shine;
Whilst Salisb’ry stands the test of every light,
In perfect charms and perfect virtue bright;
When odours, which declined repelling day,
Through temperate air uninterrupted stray;
When darkened groves their softest shadows wear,
And falling waters we distinctly hear;
When through the gloom more venerable shows
Some ancient fabric, awful in repose,
While sunburnt hills their swarthy looks conceal,
And swelling haycocks thicken up the vale;
When the loosed horse now, as his pasture leads,
Comes slowly grazing through th’ adjoining meads,
Whose stealing pace and lengthened shade we fear,
Till torn-up forage in his teeth we hear;
When nibbling sheep at large pursue their food,
And unmolested kine rechew their cud;
When curlews cry beneath the village walls,
And to her straggling brood the partridge calls;
Their short-lived jubilee the creatures keep,
Which but endures whilst tyrant man does sleep;
When a sedate content the spirit feels,
And no fierce light disturbs, whilst it reveals,
But silent musings urge the mind to seek
Something too high for syllables to speak;
Till the free soul to a compos’dness charmed,
Finding the elements of rage disarmed,
O’er all below a solemn quiet grown,
Joys in th’ inferiour world and thinks it like her own:
In such a night let me abroad remain,
Till morning breaks, and all’s confused again:
Our cares, our toils, our clamours are renewed,
Or pleasures, seldom reached, again pursued.

Much of our class discussion centered on the fact that this is a nature poem, and in literature (and in general) nature is usually gendered female, which is sometimes problematic for women writers.  We also talked about images of sexual threat in the poem, starting with the mention of Philomel, who, in mythology was raped, had her tongue cut out, and was turned into a nightingale by the gods so she could sing her sorrows (the whole story is very much like the Shakespeare play “Titus Andronicus,” and if you’re interested in that one, you should see the Julie Taymor film version).  We discussed the watching owl as a predator and the violation of being watched.  We discussed the male gaze in light of the watching owl and the “fierce light” which “disturbs, whilst it reveals.”  We discussed the horse as a phallic symbol, and how its “stealing pace and lengthened shade we fear.”

It was toward the end of this discussion that the Dude decided to speak up.  He said, “I didn’t know I had to get all Freudian and make this all about sex.  I mean, you don’t always read a poem by a man and assume that it’s an expression of masculinity.”

My reply? “Maybe YOU don’t.”

I got home and told this story to my husband, and he said (paraphrase), “I guess it’s kind of like minorities who can see racism and racial issues where privileged people often can’t.”  EXACTLY.  I wish we had a guy like HIM in my class.

2 Replies to “talking about gender in a class on women writers? CRAZY!”

  1. Oh, you have *so* nailed the problem of the “token guy in a feminist class.” Teaching women’s and gender studies, I’ve seen this dynamic more than once. Drawing considerably more men (circa 30% of the students) takes most of the edge off it. The guys aren’t stupid with intimidation. What’s more, I’ve seen them marginalize budding men’s right’s activists. The best thing that ever happened to my mixed-gender feminist classroom was adding enough guys to get to 30-40%. Ironically, perhaps, this happened at my school when the undergrad business program added the intro to WGS as a quick way to fulfill a requirement!


  2. Coming from a liberal arts background where certain classes are required for graduation, usually in an effort to produce a “well rounded” person, I really think at least one WGS class should be required for all students, male or female. It’s pretty much the only way I think we could have balanced classes in the area, and I really think men need to be aware of the completely different way so many of their female counterparts see the world. I’m still shocked that the guy had no idea that women might feel differently about reading male literature than he does, or would have a hard time with the fact that 99.9% of the cannon requires them to identify with the male perspective.


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