It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gender Imbalance: The Examples Are on the Wall

Elder Princeski and I sat down yesterday afternoon to do her halacha (Jewish Law) homework. She has a textbook/workbook which she's not allowed to write in, so that the school can get several years' use out of it, so she writes her answers in a notebook.  

I do not like this workbook.  Apparently, it was designed exclusively for boys.  It contains little evidence that females even exist, and what scant evidence there is, is not encouraging. By this I mean that the book has almost no mention of girls, with the following seven notable exceptions (and yes, I went through the entire book):  
1.  A girl's name is cited in a question asking whether women are exempt from ritual handwashing.

2.  A woman's name is mentioned in connection with preparations for her wedding.

3.  A boy's mother is mentioned as taking care of him when he is ill.

4.  One exercise cites an unnamed female teacher posing a question to her [male] pupils.  

5.  A question cites a girl as having cooked on chag (a holiday), and her two brothers arguing whether her actions were permissible or not.

6.  Another exercise in the same chapter presents an example of a woman operating a washing machine to launder baby clothes during chol hamoed, and a man chastising her for doing so.

7.  Finally, in the chapter discussing the laws of gossip, girls' names suddenly appear in one-third of the exercise questions.  (I smudged out the author's name here, since I have no desire to besmirch him;  I do not blame him for the book's bias, since I"m assuming it's consist with the attitudes and outlook of his community.   I do hold the school responsible for using such a book.  Of course it goes without saying that only boys are pictured on the front cover).


My daughter probably would never have noticed the absence of girls in most of the questions, nor the skewed examples that do mention girls.  But I noticed right away, and it hurts.  Whether the intent of the publishers is to suggest that the information in the book is mostly irrelevant to girls -- except when cooking, cleaning and gossip is concerned -- or to keep lascivious thoughts far away from the minds of nine-year-old boys, is anyone's guess. 

I wonder why my daughter's school has chosen such a textbook.  What kind of educational institution sends such a message to its pupils, male or female?  Meanwhile, I've come up with these horrendous visions of what would be an American public-school equivalent:  Math textbooks written only for boys?  Science textbooks with no mention of natural history? Civics books that only cite white people?  

The problem is not limited to textbooks.  I remember walking into Elder P's classroom during the first asifat horim (aka, Back-to-School Night, in American parlance).  Her fourth grade class consists of 33 girls and one female teacher.  All the pictures on the boards around the walls featured.... yup, that's right.  Only boys.  And men (all with long beards, of course).  I could barely restrain myself from addressing the teacher about this, but I didn't feel it appropriate to start off the year with criticism, especially since the teacher had clearly made an effort to decorate the walls.   But it irked me:   A classroom full of girls whose very essence is blatantly absent from their daily surroundings. 

As the evening went on, I debated trying to improve the situation via other means, like volunteering to help the teacher with future classroom decorations.  But I hesitated yet again, not wanting to offend her by suggesting that her own efforts were inadequate.  By now I feel that enough time has passed, and I can offer my creative services without causing offense.

I do not want to raise my daughters with the burden of a heavy, Seventies-feminism, seek-out-the-unfairness approach.  At the same time, I cannot justify a book like this, which presents a consistent bias in its blatantly unbalanced examples.  It's hard enough to raise children to respect themselves and others.  Why does the religious school system insist on making it that much harder for us?

For now, Elder P and I have found a small solution to the workbook problem.  When writing out her exercise answers, I encouraged her to respond creatively regarding some of the names mentioned.  Thus Meir has become Meira, David is now Davida, and Yossi, Yosefa. By the time we get to the later laundry, cooking and gossip examples, I hope I'll have come up with additional creative methods of dealing with them.

Keep the balance,



ProfK said...

Judging from the condition of other workbooks I have seen male babies must be found under cabbage leaves since women play no part anywhere.

I was teaching in a very right wing yeshiva for girls and the elementary school principal, herself the wife of a well known Rosh Yeshiva, came down to our office furious. Her third grade math workbook had been pulled out of usage by the Hanhallah. Why? Because on one page there was a line drawing of a father standing with two of his kids by the kitchen sink, and the father was the one washing the dishes! The school absolutely did not want its female students to see this as normative behavior.

My personal answer to all of this was to make sure that I showed my kids at home the contributions made by both men and women, and how both are necessary.

A Living Nadneyda said...

Without a doubt, personal examples from home are the best teachings... I only wish it were enough to counter the ridiculous narrative the schools insist on pushing forward.

I hope that principal got the book reinstated, or at least was able to publicize the very justified reason for her anger.

As for schools where things like this go unnoticed, or are even encourage, G-d help us.

mother in israel said...

1. Before you chastise the school for choosing the textbook, you have to find out if a better one exists.
2. What was the verdict about the washing machine? Was she supposed to wash the clothes by hand during chol hamoed?

A Living Nadneyda said...

I can still criticize this book ion its own merits, or lack thereof, even if it is the best one available. But why do they need a textbook at all when the teacher can pull out a קיצור שלחן ערוך or similar book, and write her own questions.

The book doesn't have answers in it, and they haven't studied that part as a class. From what I read, it sounds like washing for immediate need over the chag is OK, but the book has a very clear disclaimer at the beginning, that it is not to be used to determine psaq halacha.. Honestly, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read that.

Leora said...

I don't have any interesting insights, but I can relate to your frustrations.

On a more humorous note, my daughter has picked up that boys get treated differently than girls in our Orthodox Jewish world. So last night, as her two older brothers complained about the amount of work they get, she piped up, "Oh, but girls don't have to do all that work, right?" She's already looking for silver linings.

Shorty said...

That is too bad about this text book and your experience, because i am finding many examples of just HOW IMPORTANT women are in the Jewish religion (posted on my blog). Yes they are focused on the family, but one must think about the past and where these thoughts came from. That being said, there are many examples in the Torah that show that women are not only important in the community but also have a very deep connection with Hashem.