At the heart of feminist pedagogy is concern about notions of power and authority. Since its inception, feminism has been critical of power, in all its iterations. While to define a specific feminist position on power would surely be overreaching, it is possible to locate within feminism a general critique of the structural subordination of women, people of color, queer subjects, and the differently abled. Feminist pedagogy, in turn, compels instructors to consider the complex dynamics of power within the classroom. Who has power? How is power deployed and to what end? How does power influence the teaching and learning processes?
To be clear, feminist teaching does not deny the effects of power or naively envision the classroom as a space without the complexities of power relations. Elizabeth Ellsworth cautions against this kind of repressive idealism in “Why Doesn’t this Feel Empowering?: Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy”: she finds that critical pedagogies (including but not limited to feminism) often give the “illusion of equality” through techniques such as open discussion and students-as-teachers while inattentively leaving the institutionalized power differences between instructors and students in place (99). Instead of this power-blindness, feminist pedagogy–in its attempts to merely decenter the instructor and recognize students’ personal histories–acknowledges the classroom as a space historically rooted within systems of power. Like it or not, the role of the instructor comes with plenty of authoritarian trappings, and the role of student is wrapped in assumptions about deferential status and behavior.
It should be noted that feminism does not reject power wholesale as a destructive and domineering force (Young 155). Rather, many works of feminist theory identify the possibilities for power to be understood as a generative force, crucial to the empowerment of historically marginalized populations (Okin 136; Lorde). After being “deeply afraid of using authority in a way that would perpetuate class elitism and other forms of domination” (187), bell hooks comes to recognize the productive uses of power. Simply put, power’s effects depend upon who has it and her intentions. Empowering students to reflect upon their positions in the classroom, to consider themselves as holders of knowledge, and to consider their implicit authority all represent valuable moves in the right direction for they a promote students’ consciousness of a power. They are not, however, ultimately corrective of imbalances in the socio-historical distributions of power. Being conscious of power is not the same as having access to it.