Taking Our Bodies Back: empowering students to take the classroom back.

Author:Marsh, Kristin
Position:Teaching Notes - Viewpoint essay

A colleague recently commented that the few of us remaining in now-privileged tenured positions tend not to use their tenure. They do not step up to the responsibility of academic freedom. "Exactly," I thought. And then I rethought. "Do I?" I teach sociology from a critical justice perspective. But am I taking risks in the classroom? For me, they are not risks from the standpoint of keeping my job; they are risks having to do with teaching evaluations and "merit." Am I really allowing for dissension, and am I willing to rile some of my students in order to get them thinking?

Turns out I am pretty timid, and here is how I know: I never talk about, teach about, lecture about, allow debate about ... abortion.

Until now. Last fall, at the University of Mary Washington, a public liberal arts college in Virginia, I co-taught an Introduction to Women's Studies course with a colleague in English. She has taught the course many times; this was my first. Thanks to her and to the interdisciplinary teaching experience, I was introduced to the wonderful, empowering, in-your-face film from the 1970s, Taking Our Bodies Back: The Women's Health Movement. This film is not only still available (from Cambridge Documentary films, and on DVD), it is reasonably priced. It is only 33 minutes long, which is a good thing, because one needs classroom time to debrief immediately after viewing. It is not enough time, though, and dialogue should be allowed into the next class session, after students have thought it through and reacted with one another in the dining hall and dorms.

Many readers will know the film. Both Radical Teacher and Taking Our Bodies Back share a purpose, using knowledge to empower those without institutionalized privilege. At a time when the American Medical Association predominated, even over insurance companies (Quadagno 2005), and when the face of women's physicians seemed all to be white men, women needed the resources and the instigation to learn about their own bodies and to be empowered to take charge of their own health. This seems a truism today, with implications for individual responsibility to be our own best advocate. But in the 1970s, it was epiphanal and no small feat. It took consciousness-raising beyond the living room and into the legislature. And it simply meant demystifying our bodies.

In this film, students watch workshops on vaginal self-examination...

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