23 Exploring Feminism: Interactive Lesson

Melissa Murphy; John Shebell; and Justine Walsh


Rivkin and Ryan, “Introduction to Feminist Paradigms”

Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, “The Madwoman in the Attic”

Amelia Berube, “She’s Perfect Until She’s Not,” from The Student Theorist

Learning Outcomes:

1. Students will develop their own definition of feminism and gain an understanding on the feminist discourse. They will be able to describe how feminism changed over time and the major goals of the discourse.

2. Students will identify the difference between the essentialist and constructivist discourse. They will be able to define the each, explain the ways in which they are different, and give examples of each.

3. Students will be able to describe the different methods employed by men to try to control the female intellect and body.

4. Students will identify the examples of the feminist discourse in popular culture.

5. Students will discuss the issue brought up in “She’s Perfect Until She’s Not.” They will take a stance on the piece and share their opinions with the class.

Key Terms 






“Contemplative Purity”

The Angel vs The Monster

1. Opening Move

Purpose: This exercise should get students thinking about the many definitions that can be used to describe feminism. Students can prove their mastery with the texts by connecting their definition back to the reading. Each piece read for this lesson gave a differing definition of a woman. Throughout the readings, the authors show the challenges with trying to clearly define women. Students should feel themselves grappling with the challenge and, through discussion after, see the trials feminists before them struggled to overcome. Students can also develop their understanding of constructivist and essentialist principles by categorizing their answers. Students can start to see where they fall in the feminist discourse: did they look at biology in their definition? Social constructs? Patriarchal control? Why you can’t define women? Thus, this exercise serves as an avenue for students to start thinking critically about feminism and where they stand in the discourse.


Students should briefly write down their answers to these questions. Give 3-4 minutes to answer question # 1.

  1. What is a woman?

When they are done answering question #1, give question #2. Give 1- 2 minutes to answer

2. Are their elements of constructivism or essentialism in your definition?

Have students discuss their answers. This should take about 10 minutes but go for as long as there is robust conversation. The teacher should help make connections between the answers of each student and keep track of the gist of each definition. There is no right or wrong answer. Students can take a completely biological approach or talk about why you can’t define the term. The conversation should reveal the depth of the term and how many differing ways there is to define feminism. Students should also see if their definition takes on a more essentialist or constructivist viewpoint. 

2. Key Terms:

Supplemental Materials: Key Terms Chart


Purpose: Students will develop a better understanding of the text and the feminist discourse through examining the key terms. Students should be able to define the key terms, find quotes from the text and connect each term to other terms and the world at large. This exercise will force students to delve deeper into the text to show their mastery of the key concepts. Students will work to define the terms in their own words. They will practice collaborating with a group to complete the activity. Students will share their answers with the class, thus proving their understanding by teaching the rest of the class what they learned in their deep dive. Students will have created a study guide for themselves by the end of this exercise, with the most important terms clearly defined with examples from the reading.


Students will need to access the chart.

Students will be split into four separate groups. Each group will be given one term and fill out the  corresponding column. Students in each group should work together to fill out the chart for their definition. Students should gain a degree of mastery over their word and be able to explain it to the class.

Students will get 10-15 minutes (as needed) to fill out their section. 

Discussion and filling out the rest of the chart.

15-20 minutes (more as needed)

The teacher should help lead the class through each column. Each group should be able to describe their term and walk the class through the chart. Each group will go through their word until every student has the whole chart filled. If the students get stuck on any concept the teacher can clarify for them.

Have students connect their term one of the other key terms from the text: patriarchy, contemplative purity, performative. Give students 3-4 minutes to jot down ideas then have a brief discussion.

3. Feminism in Pop Culture

Purpose: Students will explore feminism in the modern world. They will become acquainted with the ways feminist discourse manifests itself in our society. Feminism is a major movement still at work in modern society. Students live with evidence of feminism all around them. In this exercise, students will be shining a light on the ways feminism peaks through in popular culture. Students will start developing the ability to spot feminist practices in their daily lives and in the media. Students will continue cementing their place in feminist discourse by providing an opinion on the event. Additionally, students will practice summarizing and connecting back to the readings.


(This can be done individually or in groups—the students can decide)

            1. Each student should go online and find a relatively recent article that shows feminism at work in pop culture. They should read their article and determine what feminist issues are being dealt with. Students should be able to use concepts from the texts to talk about their article.

            2. Split the class into four groups. Each student should have a turn to:

                        1. Give a summary of their article

                        2. Describe how it connects to what we learned in the readings and in class

                        3. Give their own opinion of the article.

4. Discussion:

The Student Theorist: “They’re Perfect Until They’re Not”

Purpose: In the real-world students will encounter feminist prospective that they may or may not agree with. In critical theory, it is imperative that students can critique the concepts they learn about and the works of others. Here students will engage in a discussion supporting or refuting this entry in The Student Theorist.  Students will become acquainted with a piece written by their peers of a feminist look at compliments. In looking at this example, students should be able to better understand how their own work should look when writing about feminist discourse. Students will practice engaging in the feminist discourse through a robust conversation about “They’re Perfect Until They’re Not.” Students will practice having their opinion heard and backing it up with evidence from the real world and the readings. Students will develop a better understanding of “They’re Perfect Until They’re Not” and the contemporary issues brought up in the piece.


As a whole group, students should define the issue discussed in this piece and discuss their opinion on the piece.

What are your thoughts after this reading? Do you agree with the claim made in this piece? Is there anything you want to challenge or critique?

Lesson Purpose and Outcomes:

By the end of this lesson students should have gained an introductory understanding of feminist discourse. Feminism is a wife-ranging discourse, extending from essentialists who believe that woman’s biology and nature determine who she is to the constructivists who say a woman herself is a social construction. In this we have the ever-present challenge of define women and even feminism. Students will have gained an introductory understanding of feminism issues. They will be able to identify the forces that attempt to hold women in place. The angel and the monster are a prevalent example of this. The angel gives women a role of contemplative purity, where they exist only to serve man. They have no story to tell and are a fixture of household. The monster on the other hand is designed to invalidate women’s stories by turning them into works of a horrible, corrupt being. Most importantly, this lesson gets students thinking critically about feminism. They will have practice in finding and critiquing examples of feminism in the real world. Women are still trying to find their place in modern society; thus, we get examples of the feminist discourse all around us. As citizens of this era, we should be aware of the way in which feminism works around us. This lesson will get students thinking critically about feminism’s place in the world, the ruling paradigms, and how it has changed over time. This lesson serves as a sound base to get students in the mindset for critiquing feminism. They will have a better understanding of the texts they read and their own opinions on the matter. Feminism is a complex and relevant discourse, having an understanding is imperative to the education of anyone in their study of critical theory.


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The Student Theorist: An Open Handbook of Collective College Theory Copyright © 2018 by Melissa Murphy; John Shebell; and Justine Walsh is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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