Rainbow Connection honors Women’s History Month

By Amy Moran, Ph.D. and Kate Okeson 

Women’s History Month is an important time to check in on issues women face nationwide. Let’s explore some of the dynamics at play in 2022. 

In schools 

Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are of paramount importance in the classroom. Unfortunately, 2022 brings news of an alarming number of interruptions to this work, chipping away at progress seen nationally to canonize inclusive and representative curricula.  

Florida: A House committee approved a bill that would ban discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in school. Another proposed bill seeks to install cameras in classrooms to prevent teaching content considered subversive. This builds on the “Stop WOKE Act,” which would allow parents to sue schools for teaching about structural racism. 

Virginia: A hotline was set up for people to report teachers who teach “divisive” ideas. 

Utah: A bill was proposed to demand that all public school curricula be posted online for examination and critique, with lawsuits to follow if something was found to be unsuitable by anyone at all. 

Missouri: The Bluest Eye (1970) was banned–again. Toni Morrison’s ground-breaking novel is told from the perspective of an African American girl grappling with the physical and psychological violence she experiences at the hands of the American society in which she lives. 

Tennessee: Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus (1980) was banned–also again! It describes the author’s parents’ experience during the Holocaust and their imprisonment in Auschwitz. A book burning was also held in the state. 

Washington: Gavin Downing, librarian, expanded his school’s holdings to “provide non-stereotypical presentation of diverse racial, ethnic, gender, and ability groups” and was told to bring titles in for his superior to evaluate for removal. He brought union representation into the meeting, as well as copies of titles that had also been accused of being sexually explicit, including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Hate U Give, a human biology book, and the Bible. 

The opposition to representative and inclusive curricula and resources is grounded in an understanding of our nation that lacks authentic context and shies away from difficult realities, favoring familiar (if misogynist, classist, and white supremacist) thinking that perpetuates myths rather than acknowledging and engaging with difficult historical truths.  

By making books and curricular content available that illustrate atrocities and inequities, students are better able to develop empathy, make sense of who we are, understand why our society is like it is today, and help improve it over their lifetimes. But rather than being supported by mandates like those in New Jersey—including the Amistad, Holocaust, LGBTQ+ and people with disabilities, and now Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—teachers across the U.S. are feeling the encroachment of ideas that are antithetical to teaching for justice.  

In the politics of women’s lives  

Women are disproportionately impacted at the intersection of their gender and their work lives. Time, money and decision-making look different for women.  

  • Nationwide, 76% of public school teachers are women. 
  • According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average salary for largely unionized public school teachers nationwide is $57,950; it’s $45,320 for private school teachers. (The average salary for a full time public school full-time teacher in New Jersey is $$77,119.) 
  • Women take on hours more of the mental load of planning, organizing, scheduling, attending meetings and appointments in families with straight parents. 
  • According to the University of Michigan and the Institute for Women’s Policy, women spend two more hours each day attending to children and housework than men do. Women’s unpaid labor adds up to 95 more eight-hour work days than men every year. Married straight women with three or more children did 28 hours of housework weekly, and their husbands created seven hours of housework for them. Their husbands logged 10 hours of housework weekly. 
  • January 2022 marked the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, allowing people to have bodily autonomy over whether or not to be pregnant. In 2021 alone, states enacted 106 restrictions to that bodily autonomy.  
  •  A U.S. Supreme Court nominee frontrunner is Ketanji Brown Jackson, among the first Black women to potentially hold the position. If confirmed, she would become one of four women serving on the nine-seat court. 

Making this data visible may help us participate equitably, equalize pay—a major reason why labor unions are so important!—and to return autonomy to all women in all aspects of their lives.

In media, art, and entertainment 

Representation of women in the media serves multiple purposes. It reflects who we are and how we’re doing, and it can (unwittingly?) omit versions of us that other audiences might find uncomfortable—even if they’re authentic and affirming of real women’s identities. Whether we are using contemporary media in classes with our students or it is our time to just chillax, using critical media literacy to examine who is being represented, how they’re being represented, and what expectations those representations are fulfilling (and for whom!) are all part of savvy media consumption. 

In the new hit TV show, “Abbott Elementary”—a mockumentary sitcom created by Quinta Brunson, daughter of a Philadelphia public school teacher—takes a light-hearted approach to some intense social, economic and political realities about the strategic underfunding of public schools in urban areas. Similarly, “Somebody Somewhere” is another wonderful new TV show starring Bridget Everett who plays Sam, a middle-aged woman who’s lost her direction in her small hometown in Kansas. She works as an essay grader for a standardized testing company and is befriended by a queer man she’d forgotten she’d gone to high school with.  

Some inspiring and perhaps unexpected representation for women this month can be found in Amy Schneider, “Jeopardy!” winner, software engineer, and trans woman whose 40-day winning streak is the second highest in the game show’s history. And in the wonderful world of animated films, merchandise associated with “Encanto’s” Luisa—a big-bodied woman with the gift of super-uman strength—is selling out in places where character merchandise is sold. Girls and women are relating more to her than the typically feminine protagonist Mirabel. 

Check out Rainbow Connection’s March resource doc for additional examples of amazing broadcast media and music. 

In memoriam 

In December of 2021, we lost legendary queer teacher, author and social activist bell hooks. Her work explored the intersections of race, capitalism and gender and how they produce and perpetuate systems of oppression. Amy’s favorite works of hers include Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and her chapter “Is Paris Burning?” a critique of the documentary “Paris is Burning,” from which the TV show “Pose” was modeled. 

“January’s Rainbow Connection asked teachers to think about LGBTQIA+ representation in all areas of curriculum. While I was doing my Black History Month bulletin board, it got me thinking about LGBTQIA+ representation in Black history. I went beyond what would be my usual sources to find prominent figures in Black history who also identify as LGBTQIA+, including activist Bayard Rustin, author Audre Lorde, journalist Angelina Weld Grimke, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy—original executive director for the Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project.” 

– Erin Lafond, library media specialist at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Teaneck 

What’s “woke” anyway?

Used in the in the 1930s Lead Belly’s song “Scottsboro Boys,” in the 1940s in the Negro Digest in an article about labor unions, and again in the 1960s in a New York Times article called “If You’re Woke You Dig It,” the term woke comes from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and predates its wide contemporary usage. But what does it mean?  

Woke (adj): being newly informed about things you didn’t know; having new understanding of social dynamics whose challenging realities have been omitted to make you think it wasn’t as bad as it actually was; being politically aware about systems of oppression; a description of those who work to dismantle systems of oppression, such as those working for the Movement for Black Lives, the Green Movement, LGBTQIA+ rights, Indigenous Peoples’ rights, the Labor Movement, etc. 

Wokeness (n): questioning common paradigms; the fight against systems of indoctrination, such as white supremacy, corporate ecocide, book burning, etc.; refraining from espousing commonly accepted but oppressive ideas.  

As we see nationwide, this term is being used in pejorative ways by certain media outlets and lawmakers to vilify folks (like us!) who challenge oppressive paradigms and are working toward greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools and beyond.