EDITORIAL: Time to deal with gender in high school literature


Alexis Bamford

What are we reading? It may be time to rethink gender portrayal in high school literature.

I slammed the cover shut, having finally absorbed every word in the narrow-minded nightmare that is Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt.

Then, I opened up my laptop.

North Penn School District’s website contains a master list of every book in its English curriculum, which I assume was carefully compiled to present young minds with several nuanced lenses through which to view society’s intricacies.

But I noticed something strange: out of the 60 books, only 13 were written by women. Out of those 13, I have read two.

How will women reach the halls of Congress or Fortune 500 boardrooms when we can’t even occupy a quarter of North Penn’s reading list?

Here’s the thing: the world has changed since that list was written, and we must understand that it is more imperative than ever to emphasize gender equality, especially in educational environments. A just, equitable, and productive future begins with an enlightened present. An enlightened present begins in the mind of a single student, regardless of gender. Therefore, isn’t the only logical option to fill that student’s mind with as just, as equitable, and as productive an education as possible?

Kelly Crisp Paynter, a doctoral student at Liberty University, asserted in her 2011 dissertation on gender stereotypes in literature that “beliefs do not spring out of thin air—they are the steady, cumulative result of exposure to various thoughts and experiences over time” (Crisp Paynter 24). If the majority of a student’s educational material consists of the underrepresentation and belittlement of women, that student is far more likely to develop skewed perceptions of what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. For example, Babbitt describes Myra Babbitt, the protagonist’s wife and the novel’s most developed female character, as a woman who “took care of the house and didn’t bother the males by thinking” (Lewis 63). Not only does this suggest that Myra is useless except in the pursuit of housework, it reinforces the outdated and detrimental stereotype that women’s minds are subservient to the desires and heightened intellect of men.

People model the behavior they witness, so what do educators expect will happen as a result of this perpetual exposure to blatant misogyny?


Meanwhile, the scintillating and true memoir I Am Malala explores the plight of a dauntless young woman from Pakistan as she struggles to attain an education, all while her homeland smolders into an ongoing socio political conflict. I borrowed it from a friend and was riveted, staying up past midnight to finish the book in a matter of days.

Babbitt took me three weeks.

On a different note, I understand, though necessary, how unrealistic it would be to instantaneously upend years of literary status quo. To satisfy educators in the interim, I have a recommendation: if you’re going to teach us books with problematic gendered undertones, please acknowledge that what we’re reading contains problematic gendered undertones! Call out sexism instead of glossing over it. In addition to appeasing the indignation of students like myself, you’ll be modernizing classic literature by drawing relevant lessons from even the most outdated pages.

I’m not asking North Penn to change its curriculum in the interest of political correctness.

I’m asking because public schools are responsible for preparing children for the real world, and in the real world, women deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

Is there anything better than feeling valued and inspired, like you have a unique potential to give the world something that it desperately needs?

I felt that way when Hillary Clinton ran for president. I felt that way when I turned in my sophomore research paper on Naval Special Forces, a historically male-dominated topic that I am truly passionate about. I felt that way when I saw the movie Wonder Woman and decided that whatever my career, I wanted to advocate for extraordinary people who believe they are powerless.

Call me crazy, but I want to feel that way in English class.

I’m starting a list of books to recommend to the ECP committee, which is in charge of the English curriculum. Email me at [email protected] to suggest a book or author.