Building Knowledge

There has been a move in most universities towards what could be described as "minority studies," focusing on blacks, or natives of the Third World, or women. While marginal and perhaps even patronizing, these new disciplines have provided a forum for the validation of the experience of those outside the mainstream culture. For women, the women's studies classroom has become the place where they learn to hear their own voice. Their experience is the legitimate material of learning. In this setting, they no longer have to suppress their own knowledge as invalid and parrot a mainstream view that excludes their ways of knowing, of expressing, of being.

It is not only the content of the women's studies program that is uniquely tailored to the learning of women. The methodology of the feminist classroom is also characteristically non-hierarchical, participatory and supportive. If the material for women's studies is women's experience, then every woman in the classroom becomes an expert, a resource. Her contribution becomes as valid, as valuable, as that of anyone else. The teacher, then, assumes the role of facilitator, of midwife, as the participants give birth to an interpretation of their private experience as women in male society.

In the feminist classroom, participants are invited to move away from the view that "the experts know, and if I study hard what they have said, I'll learn the right answer" to a consciousness and comprehension of their own experience in a social and political context. The process of feminist education has much in common with the "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" advocated by Paulo Freire for the raising of critical consciousness among the dispossessed of Central America.

The collaborative, non-hierarchical structure of the feminist classroom is particularly suited to women's ways of learning. The characteristically tentative nature of many women's participation in the classroom can be re- interpreted as cooperative and seeking collaboration, rather than hesitant and lacking conviction. Carol Gilligan's studies in the collaborative, interactive nature of women's cognitive development provide reinforcement for a methodology that encourages women to view discussion as the cooperative development of ideas rather than as competition from the floor (2).

The tentative
of many
in the
can be
as cooperative
and seeking
rather than
and lacking

If Canadian universities have, to some extent at least, accepted the challenge of feminist scholarship, how well have they addressed the particular needs of that doubly excluded group, rural women? Half the population of Canada lives in towns under 100,000; in the Prairies, nearly 25 per cent of the population live on farms. Many of the conditions on which women's studies programs are predicated do not apply to rural women.

Of particular significance to farm women who are seeking self-fulfillment is a sense of disloyalty to their men, who are also seen as excluded and unheard in Canadian society. Rural women do not in general accept their right to pursue self-development: the level of consciousness and confidence assumed in the women's studies classroom is less firmly established among them. Because rural society as a whole is endangered rural women are inclined to identify with their men, who are both oppressors and oppressed. There is an ambivalence about the Canadian women's movement among the very sector of society which, at the beginning of the century, could be said to have given it birth.

A rural woman who does identify with the women's movement finds herself without the physical, psychological, and academic supports that would make it possible for her to pursue women's studies. The forum to exchange ideas, voice experience, foster growth does not exist outside the urban setting. A farm woman cannot assume that child care is available to her, nor transportation to school, nor the physical space to read, discuss, and process new ideas. She does not have the access to library resources that her urban sisters enjoy. Most important of all she is alone. She cannot share that sense of strength and solidarity that women feel when they come together to discover the commonality of their experience.

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