I throw a Rosie the Riveter poster on the overhead and ask my students “why is this photo an important symbol of feminism in the United States?” Long pause, a timid hand is cautiously raised. “Uh, it’s a poster used to encourage women to join the workforce during WWII.” I nod to encourage the student, “yes that’s right, but why was this such a big deal?” After some prodding a student always says some version of, “It’s a big deal because before WWII women didn’t work.” “Yes that’s right,” I say, “before WWII women weren’t in the workforce at all. Right?” Looking over the class I can tell my students are on to me.
My students are right that the common story of Rosie the Riveter is that it signifies when women entered the workforce. However, this isn’t really true (as I am sure you already know). Women have always been in the workforce (and I am not talking about domestic labor). Women who had no choice other than to work have always done so. Many women of color, poor women, and unmarried women have always been represented in the labor force. So “the story” of Rosie is a wonderful opportunity to teach our students about intersectionality.
“What exactly is feminism? That is, how could we define the term?” I ask my students. After a few moments a student says that feminism is about equality between men and women. “Equality between which women to which men? Do you mean that women want to be equal to a poor undocumented immigrant man from Ethiopia? Do women want to be equal to a impoverished gay man? Or do women want to be treated as equals to a rich white heterosexual Christian able-bodied man?” Awkward silence sweeps the classroom.
The complexities of inequality that moments earlier may have been hiding are now laid bare. I have my students read the article that inspired this activity, Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression by Bell Hooks and a short article about the Matrix of Domination by Patricia Hill Collins. After breaking the common definition of feminism, the students and I work together to rebuild a new definition of the term.