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Feminist inspirations

I have off and on been working on an article about the irony of being a feminist homeschooler. It’s a little bit like being a gay marine, but so far, no one has tried to stop me from telling my troops, eh, kids what my feelings are. I’m guessing they’ve figured it out.

One of the ways I love to teach is through stories, whether they are stories of my own or stories we listen to. And it’s not always a question of listening to stories that I “agree” with — my kids and I have had some fascinating discussions about books that I or they didn’t like.

However, I love it when a novel comes along that does it all: It teaches, it inspires, it creates a new world that we’ve never seen before.

Some time back, I got a recommendation for The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate for my list of good books for gifted pre-teen readers. (Click here to see that article.) This book is exactly what I was looking for: An inspiring story about a child just the right age, a deep story without simplistic moralizing and easy fixes, a book with subject matter that gave us reason to learn and grow as we listen. You can think of it as a more modern Little Women, but with lots of brothers!

Calpurnia is a girl living in rural Texas just before the turn of the twentieth century. She is twelve, and at the beginning of the book, she seems like a pretty happy child. She is interested in nature, and her oldest brother, seeing her interest, gives her a notebook. This simple act sets off a storm in Callie’s life.

First, she realizes how little she knows. Next, she acts in order to learn more. But as often happens with knowledge, a little bit can bring a lot of unhappiness.

Callie has an awakening. The good side of the awakening is her realization that her fascination with studying the natural world has a name: she is a scientist. The bad side of her awakening is that she is in the process of being initiated into what everyone assumes she will do with her life: wife and motherhood. The first realization elates her; the second dashes her to pieces.

As a result of hearing this book in our car every day, my eight-year-old daughter was interested in reading Darwin’s Origin of Species. And coincidental with hearing this book, my son and I are reading a biography of Darwin. Origin of Species is way over my daughter’s head. It’s doubtful that we’ll finish it. However, I love how her interest in this book was piqued by fiction. In The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, this book is vilified by many. That attracted my daughter. If I’d suggested reading this book to her, there would have been no reason for her to be interested, no structure to plug it into. But a good narrative can create meaning for learning. It creates the chair to set the knowledge in.

Similarly, my son might have been interested enough in a biography of Darwin since we were studying DNA and cell biology, but the narrative of the story made him curious. He is noticing a lot more about the historical context than my daughter, and between paragraphs read from the biography he inserts observations and questions.

But most meaningful to me (whether or not my kids know it) is the feminist content of the story. Callie is clearly a scientist. Taking care of children is not her calling (in fact, at one point she pays a brother to do the babysitting she is supposed to be doing so that she can go down to do scientific research at the river with her grandfather). The point of feminism is that we all — men and women — should be able to follow our calling. We should be scientists, if that’s where our passions take us. Or we should care for children and know that this is the way we are making our mark in the world.

It’s this last point I come back to when I consider the irony of my homeschooling life. Although I don’t remember any time when I was adamantly against having children, I never felt that having children was a calling. But now that I not only have decided to have them, but also to be responsible for their education, I call up that part of feminism that I think is most powerful: each and every job that a person does well is important, and if that job is childcare, that’s fine. And if that job is being an astronaut, that’s fine, too. The astronaut needs someone to care for children. The one caring for children needs the astronaut to provide inspiring narrative for the deeds of humankind.

We’re all connected, and nothing we do–if it’s something we are called to do and if it adds something positive to the web of human existence–is worthless. So when I feel like I’m wasting my time I remember: this is what feminists worked for. I have the choice, and I’m making it. And my children are learning that they have the choice, too.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.

3 Responses

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  1. Diane says

    This may be a good title to check out: THE FORMATION OF VEGETABLE MOULD, THROUGH THE ACTION OF WORMS, WITH OBSERVATIONS ON THEIR HABITS. It may sound odd, but it is one of Darwin’s more accessible works, and really pretty interesting, though unrelated to feminism or evolution.

  2. alina says

    Love your thoughts- from another feminist homeschooler.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The wonderful world of Diana Wynne Jones – Avant Parenting linked to this post on July 2, 2014

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