Women’s Studies at SHS: More Than a Crash Course in Herstory

Story by Abby Wang, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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Four years ago, Ann-Marie Houle, a social studies teacher at Stonington High School, decided that she wanted to teach a new class.

She discussed her idea with fellow social studies teacher Patrick McCarney, who wanted to teach a class centered around the September 11th terrorist attack. Houle took a different direction: she wanted to teach a class about women.

“I got Board of Ed and admin approval. I designed my own curriculum,” said Houle. “What inspired me? I’ve always been passionate about [women’s issues].”

Though a history class at its core—Houle teaches the three waves of feminism in American society—the class, now in its third year, has flourished and evolved under the guidance of current events and student input.

Houle said that, as expected, the Women’s Studies class has always been predominantly female, but that the few boys who do choose to take the class are essential to the class’ functioning. “My class only works if the boys talk,” she emphasized. Although the discussion that they contribute may not always be informed or thoughtful, “they’re representing high school boys.”

As for the influence of current events: “Last semester was crazy with the #MeToo movement,” Houle explained, referencing the globally viral movement that aims to demonstrate the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, especially in the workplace.

She shrugged. “I’m trying to combat sexism in your world, not mine. In your world, people brush [misogyny] under a carpet—‘Oh, he’s being a teenager,’” she said, quoting an oft-repeated excuse for the inappropriate behavior of many boys. “There are easily more consequences in my world.”

“We were sitting in class when the Matt Lauer allegations broke,” Houle recalled with a serious expression.

Lauer, former co-host of NBC’s Today Show, was fired in November 2017 after an anonymous NBC employee alleged that he had repeatedly sexually harassed her. Lauer’s story exhibits one kind of the “consequences” of which Houle speaks: the loss of employment, the fall from fame that has toppled countless formerly powerful people accused of sexual misconduct in the tide of the #MeToo movement. This social-media-driven movement, said Houle, is the quintessential example of the Third Wave of feminism.

But Women’s Studies is more than just a special-interest history class, or even a class about current events. It becomes something more real to its loyal students—it becomes a refuge from the outer world.

Houle rattled off topics that she had not accounted for, but quickly encountered in her class: “Eating disorders, abusive relationships, and mental illness. And more.”

“I never thought that I’d go in class having to deal with ideas brought to my attention…I was surprised by kids’ bravery…My class gave kids permission to share what they were bottling up,” Houle explained.

She hesitated. “I think I play a part in [the sharing]…and that’s the most rewarding part for me. I don’t know…if I understood that my class gave permission.”

Permission to share personal—deeply personal—stories and experiences. Permission to ask the class for unconditional support to cope with personal problems that a student may face during the semester that they are in Women’s Studies.

Hannah Dunmire, a senior who took Women’s Studies during the first semester of her senior year, agreed with this assessment of the class: “I loved the class because all of us were able to openly share and discuss our opinions while still being respectful of each other; this made a comfortable environment for us to never be afraid to say what we think and how we feel about an issue.”

As an educator, Houle is limited in her ability to permanently transform the academic thinking or social beliefs of her students. Yet that was never the intention of her class. “I can want [gender] equality, but I truly believe that it’s going to be the men who have to give it to us,” she said.

What is more important is how the class influences its students during a pivotal phase of their lives: adolescence, on the cusp of adulthood and subsequent social responsibility.

“You’re never going to remember…the facts…[but] I hope that my students leave with confidence,” Houle affirmed.

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Women’s Studies at SHS: More Than a Crash Course in Herstory