Engaging Sexism in the Free Schooling Movement

July 10, 2008 at 3:46 pm 1 comment

This article, by Maya Schenwar of Truthout, raised a lot of questions for me about how the sexism in our culture may have found its into the free schooling/homeschooling/unschooling/etc. movement – and about how complex of an issue it can be. (I’ve taken long quotes from the article and copied and pasted them here, and I’ll be discussing it all at the end of the quotes).

[…] For these parents, “unschooling” is an attractive option. In this approach to homeschooling, kids choose what they’ll study and investigate their questions outside the confines of a classroom. In traditional homeschooling, parents play the role of teachers, determining the curriculum, handing out assignments, and administering tests. Unschooling parents, on the other hand, act as facilitators, guiding their kids’ explorations. Even though the diy approach may appeal to progressives who identify with the anti-establishment ethos of the punk movement, homeschooling still raises tricky questions for progressive mothers.

Namely, this one: Can women trade their careers for their families without sacrificing a few of their feminist values – the very values that inspired many of them to homeschool in the first place? It’s no wonder that punk feminist moms like Kim Campbell, who has homeschooled her kids for seven years, occasionally feel like walking oxymorons.

Despite her indie values, Campbell worries that her economic dependence on her husband could set a bad example for her daughter. “The first half year that we homeschooled, I had a complete identity crisis over the matter,” she says. “At the time I knew that I was making a great decision, but I couldn’t figure out how to square it with what I’d always considered my feminist sensibilities.” For Campbell and a growing contingent of other feminist unschoolers across the country, educating their kids has also been a process of figuring out how homeschooling jibes with their feminism.

Nina Packebush, a Washington state mom of three and self-described “radical parent,” started teaching her son at home because he was dyslexic and had ADHD, and his school wasn’t providing the personal attention he needed. As Packebush sought out teaching resources, she discovered a gaping hole in standard history textbooks.

“I noticed that women and people of color were virtually nonexistent,” Packebush says. “Don’t even try to find any mention of lgbt people in history. One thing led to another, and soon I was homeschooling because I was a feminist.” When her youngest child reached school age, Packebush chose to keep her out of the classroom solely because of its gender-biased curriculum. […]

As challenging and rewarding as homeschooling may be, some don’t see it as real work. A slew of recent books, including Leslie Bennetts’s bestseller The Feminine Mistake, argue that while stay-at-home moms, like homeschoolers, may believe they are choosing to leave the workforce, their decisions are actually influenced by insidious patriarchal forces. Many homeschooling moms counter that removing themselves from the marketplace means freeing themselves from its many sexist influences. If they have the financial means – or the ingenuity – to opt out, they’d rather live outside the workforce. Schira says that by rejecting the idea that success is all about money, she’s reconceptualizing what happiness means. “I have come to recognize that I don’t want the kind of life being offered by our culture,” she says. “I don’t want things. I don’t want status. I want interdependence, harmony, new solutions to old problems.”

Of course, resorting to one income brings out the five-ton mammoth in the room: most homeschoolers are women and most of their income providers are men. Packebush, who was married when she began homeschooling, says that even in her “hip, alternative, feminist marriage,” she was the one doing most of the childcare and teaching. “The vast majority of the people doing homeschooling are women,” she says.

Often, that’s because moms want to be their family’s primary teachers. But raising radical, revolutionary children isn’t feminist if the mom’s individuality is getting lost in the lives of her kids. It’s tough for homeschooling mothers to maintain their free time. Forums for homeschoolers abound with tips for dealing with burnout. The workload can be overwhelming, and even with a “fuck money” attitude, it’s natural to feel undercompensated at times. Homeschooling mothers must negotiate a fine line between protesting capitalism and becoming unpaid labor. […]

Along with the question of self-expression comes gender expression and unschooled kids are prone to ignoring (or at least toning down) the gender distinctions that rule most schools. Take Diana, a homeschooled 17-year-old from New Haven, Connecticut, who swears by Kate Bornstein’s book Gender Outlaw and is very grateful to have missed out on the school social scene. “Not going to high school or middle school, I’ve never had that onslaught of pressure to do all sorts of pointless competitive things, like lose my virginity before I wanted to, or be sexy so men will like me, or be queer for the enjoyment of an audience,” she says.

Avoiding homophobia is central to many parents’ decision to homeschool. Packebush thinks queer, feminist homeschooling is on the rise because parents see it as an escape from the rampant sexism, homophobia, and transphobia of public schools. “Gender construction is one of the biggest reasons I keep my kids out of school.” […]

As the feminist homeschooling movement gains momentum, mothers will increasingly be faced with tough, identity-defining questions: Does being a feminist mean you have to have a paid job? What does it mean to raise a feminist kid? Is there a feminist definition of success, and should there be? It’s important to keep in mind that a homeschooling mom is many things besides a homeschooling mom – even if she can’t stop talking about her kid’s latest papier-m ch dinosaur. Forging these more complex identities entails recognizing all the hats they wear besides “homeschooler.” Packebush is a zinester, Schira is a webmaster and writer, and so on. They’re Marxists, or anarchists, or punks, or please-don’t-define-me-the-reason-I-homeschool-is-to-get-away-from-this-label-slapping-bullshit human beings.

As for Kim Campbell, she’s still unschooling and still fighting critics of her decision with a vengeance. When others question whether her decision to “stop working” is feminist, she responds, “Honey, you don’t know from work!”

So, there you go. The article was a lot more than just about what I’ve copied and pasted here, but it was a general theme that ran throughout it. I do recommend you go read it, though.

If what the article claims to be true about most homeschooling/unschooling/etc. parents being mothers, and I don’t doubt that it is, then it raises the question: why are the fathers the ones less involved? The article more then adequately covers the conflicting ideas that unschooling moms have to face in their decision and actions, but why are the fathers stepping out of the role and continuing in their culturally traditional roles as the “provider?” It seems that historically teaching has been identified as a “feminine” role, and taking care of kids definitely has been. So, unschooling then would be the combination of these two culturally-identified “feminine” roles. Thus, in a patriarchal society it makes sense that homeschooling/free schooling would be seen as a “woman’s role.”

I have a few of thoughts on this. First, if that’s what the mother want to do, then great! As a man who identifies as a feminist-ally, I believe that feminism is the right for women/female-identified people to have complete choice and self-governance over their lives (and also the intersections between feminism and all other oppressions). That means, if a mother wants to be a “stay-at home” mom to unschool her children – then that is her choice. However, that doesn’t mean that the father should accept that as a fact. This is a choice amongst the whole family, with everyone having an equal say.

Second, I know of some unschooling families where both parents work – but one parent works four days a week, the other works three, or some other combination. This way, both parents can have major roles in the unschooling process. However, this is under the condition that the family can afford this (just like the condition that one parent unschools while the other works). This demonstrates the kind of class issues that unschooling still has to face.

Third, why is unschooling/raising children not seen as “work?” It has been historically true that our culture, one based in capitalism, has not given value to effort and work unless it has monetary value and makes money. Thus, even though unschooling/raising children takes great deal of work, effort, and time – some people are saying it is an anti-feminist thing to do for the mother, because then she is a “stay at home” mom. This critique is stuck within the capitalistic mind-frame that without a sort of money-value, effort and accomplishment is worthless. I think this should be rejected, and that it should be understood that unschooling/free schooling/and so forth is a great deal of work that is worth a lot in its own way.

But, this leaves the question, one that I’m going to ponder, and I hope others can help me tackle: in what ways can we confront sexism in the free schooling/unschooling/homeschooling movement?

So, this post has been about families that have one father and one mother – but I recognize that not all families are this way. This post was simply a reaction to the above article, which was about families with one mother and one father.


Entry filed under: Anti-Oppression and Free Schools, General Free Schooling, Related To Free Schooling.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Lydia  |  July 10, 2008 at 6:25 pm

    Class and alternative schooling.. some of our favorite topics to talk about, Brian! You know how I feel about this- it sucks that public schools, which can have such problematic curriculms and can impose such rigid views on children, are free, and that private schools that don’t have to rely on government money (and goverment curricula) are damn expensive. It’s unfair. This article really reminded me of when I was in elementary school and I read an article in a favorite magazine (girls’ life, I think.. !!) about a girl who chose to unschool. I thought it sounded really, really cool. I talked to my mom about it, which probably made her feel really bad that it was a dream that could not come true for me- she was a newly single mother trying really hard to make ends meet, and could not afford to devote her time to homeschooling/unschooling- because she needed to be working.

    This article did raise some questions for me- what are the legal issues involved in unschooling, ex. can a child unschool on their own without a parent around or would that not be legal at a certain age? maybe this is a silly question. I just can’t imagine that it’s possible for a 10 year old child who wants to be an unschooler to be allowed to be on their own all day. Don’t homeschoolers have to register with their school districts and take end of year standardized tests and stuff? maybe I don’t know very much about homeschooling.

    also, now that I’ve been writing these terms over and over, what are the differences between the term ‘homeschooling’ and ‘unschooling’?


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