Feminist Pedagogy: Changing Lives, Libraries, and the World

How to approach teaching informed by feminist theory.

[Note: This column originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Choice.]

When I bring up the subject of feminist pedagogy with other librarians or faculty members on my campus, I am often met with confusion and questions like, “Is it about teaching women?” Thus, any conversation about feminist pedagogy needs to begin with an understanding of terminology. I recently taught a course on feminist pedagogy on my campus in the master’s of interdisciplinary studies program, and most of my students were reluctant to even use the word “feminist” to describe themselves. It certainly is a term that elicits all sorts of heated responses.You can define feminism in many ways from all kinds of perspectives, but when I talk about feminism, I’m talking about a lens that makes visible the oppression women experience due to the dominant patriarchal culture and transforming the culture so that women are humanized and treated with dignity and honor and respect owed to all of humanity. Equality is a word you hear a lot associated with feminism, that it’s about equal rights with men, but I don’t use that language, because I think it presumes that men, or being a man, is the default position, one to which I should aspire. And I don’t aspire to that. For me, being a feminist is about demanding that my humanity and worth be regarded with the respect and dignity I deserve because I’m a human being, a person, existing in the world.

And when I talk about pedagogy, I refer to this helpful definition from The Social Science Jargon Buster (O’Leary, 2007): “Pedagogy focuses on strategies, techniques, and approaches used to facilitate learning.” So, in short, pedagogy about the art of teaching and teaching methods in any kind of setting—the lecture hall, the one-on-one tutoring session, or the library instruction classroom.

When feminism is brought into conversation with pedagogy, you have an approach to teaching informed by feminist theory. I’ll examine here what feminist pedagogy looks like, but before I do that, I want to emphasize that feminist pedagogy is also more than an approach to teaching. I think that feminist pedagogy is a kind of lens or filter through which we can approach and reenvision library work, even in settings that do not appear to have overt, literal classroom teaching moments. And because feminist approaches to teaching and learning involve valid ways of knowing and seeing the world beyond an empirical patriarchal model, feminist pedagogy also resists precise definition.

So while it’s challenging to pin down a precise definition, there are some common characteristics that feminist teachers will use to describe the concept. When you read the literature about feminist pedagogy, you’ll see that key features include favoring a collaborative approach to teaching and learning, meaning that teachers and learners work together to shape and create the learning environment. This is a student-centered approach that validates and honors students’ voices and lived experience. Feminist pedagogy seeks to transform the traditional power structures that favor hierarchical models where learners are inferior and teachers are superior. Feminist pedagogy is explicitly feminist because it cares about gender inequality and other intersecting forms of oppression, and it seeks to use the learning experience as a way of consciousness-raising about these issues. And finally, teaching from a feminist perspective demands a stronger ethic of care from the teacher. The teacher values and cares for the learner as a whole person with dreams and goals and challenges and talents. The ethic of care also pays attention to the affective dimension of learning, meaning that learners usually have lots of complicated feelings about the learning experience. Teachers can validate those feelings, provide reassurance, support, and encouragement, and foster environments that are safe spaces for exploration of new ideas.

A useful, vivid, and compelling metaphor for thinking about feminist pedagogy is the midwife model. According to Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1997), “While bankers deposit knowledge in the learner’s head, the midwives draw it out. They assist the students in giving birth to their own ideas, in making their own tacit knowledge explicit and elaborating it.” This is also consistent with the “guide on the side” model of teaching, as opposed to the “sage on the stage.” In short, librarians who use a feminist pedagogical approach to the work they do are midwives or facilitators of information access and empowerment of a learner’s innate knowledge and gifts. We are not gatekeepers of knowledge or of sources of knowledge. The feminist teacher as midwife honors that students already have knowledge and skills inside of them and tries to help students develop that knowledge in new ways.

The midwife model of feminist pedagogy is similar to the anti-banking model espoused by Paulo Freire, a Brazilian teacher, activist, thinker, and the grandfather of critical pedagogy, which is an approach to teaching and learning that situates raising awareness of social inequities so that learners are empowered to change the world at the center of the learning experience. Freire was a critic of the banking model of teaching, which is a hierarchical mode of teaching in which students are passive vessels waiting to be filled with the wisdom of all-knowing, authoritative teachers. Feminist pedagogy is a more specific type of critical pedagogy, one that uses feminism as the central organizing principle. In Friere’s influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he talks about this idea of conscientização, which we can translate from Portuguese as critical consciousness. The idea is that through the learning experience, learners come to understand the world and all of its inequities and injustices, and then see themselves as empowered agents of change who can transform these inequities and injustices.

This focus on transformation of the world is evident in the work of bell hooks, an important writer and practitioner of feminist pedagogy. In her book Teaching to Transgress, hooks talks about what she calls engaged pedagogy, and she takes critical pedagogy a step further and emphasizes an ethic of care: “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” For hooks, an engaged feminist pedagogy favors a holistic approach that truly cares and honors the student’s humanity. hooks also describes how deeply she values Freire’s work, while also observing that Freire emerges from a particular worldview and context, a patriarchal worldview, “wherein freedom and the experience of patriarchal manhood are always linked as though they are one and the same.” This is not just articulated in his worldview but in his actual language; the word “man” is frequently used throughout his text to mean “human” or “person.”

Critical pedagogy has energized conversations about information literacy and the academic library in recent years, but I want to highlight and emphasize the necessity and relevance of a specifically feminist pedagogy and its relevance to the academic library. Jane Hannigan, in her keynote address at the ALISE conference in 1994, noted: “The basic premises upon which librarianship and information science have been built are structured on white, middle-class male paradigms that have systematically, if unconsciously, silenced and excluded women” (Hannigan, 1994). Hannigan’s argument about the profession stresses the urgency of a distinctly feminist approach to seeing the world and how it works, and how this intersects with the work we do in the library.

What does feminist pedagogy look like in action? Here is a small and not exhaustive snapshot of concrete practices in the library instruction classroom that are consistent with feminist pedagogy. A feminist librarian might:

  • Promote active participation when discussing possible research topics, database searching strategies, or other information literacy learning activities.
  • Rely on student input for database demonstration, keyword brainstorming, and search query formation.
  • Make use of group work or partner work for information searching or evaluation.
  • Develop learning activities that solicit and validate students’ experiential knowledge.
  • Raise awareness of sexism and other forms of oppression through library research content and examples (e.g., using “women in engineering” for a search topic in a career research class).
  • Collaboratively develop goals and learning outcomes for library session with students.
  • Invite suggestions from students on how to achieve goals.

These are only a few examples of how feminist pedagogy might be enacted in the library instruction classroom. However, feminist pedagogy can also inform how we conceive of library resources and services in all kinds of settings. Even if a particular library service does not involve explicit, literal classroom teaching—like assisting students at the reference desk—there is still an opportunity to apply a feminist pedagogical lens to how we do that work.

For example, I think that a key feminist intervention for reference work is to ensure a true student-focused experience. Let students take the lead in describing their information needs and validate what they know already. Do not interrupt and instead listen actively. This approach often involves a lot of reassurance and dispelling of anxiety and insecurity. For example, I often encounter students at my library who are returning to college after decades away, and they express a great deal of apprehension about being on a college campus again and how much libraries have changed. So I try to draw on what they know already about how to find information, and in so doing validate and affirm their lived experience, and then translate it into how things work now.The tools look different, but I don’t think the basic information searching skills have changed much. A feminist approach to reference work can thus involve collaborating with students to plot out their path of information discovery.

I would also like to challenge librarians to rethink the language we use to describe the work we do at reference. The word “transaction” is frequently used, which has a business-like, dehumanizing connotation. It’s also useful here to think about the reference “interview,” and to highlight the etymology of the word, which comes from French via Latin, meaning “to see each other.” This is such a beautiful image, but does an interview ever really happen this way? Think about the last time you talked to a student at the reference desk, or at the circulation desk, or any kind of desk in the library. Did you really see the student? And did the student really see you? What would it mean to truly see each other when interacting with a student?

I think to truly see each other, to respect and care for the souls of students from a feminist pedagogical perspective, to borrow the language of bell hooks, means aligning the emotionally vulnerable parts of your own self to the corresponding parts of the student. It means remembering what it felt like to be in a college library for the first time and not understanding where anything was, or how to read a call number or why there wasn’t a “fiction” section to easily browse and how am I going to finish this research paper that’s due tomorrow. It means feeling incredibly stressed about balancing home life, school life, and work life, and inevitably giving short shrift to one of those areas. I’m not suggesting that is easy work, this work of actively cultivating an attitude of empathy, because it’s not, but I contend, based on my own lived experience, that the impact of doing so, of actively cultivating an ethic of care, has a significantly enriching impact on both learner and librarian.

I think a feminist approach to reference work can also involve challenging the idea of neutrality, that librarians are supposed to be unbiased and not have an agenda. I think using a reference experience as an opportunity for consciousness-raising is perfectly valid if it is organic to the conversation. I talk in my book Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction about a reference encounter where a student asked for peer-reviewed articles that “proved” that depicting homosexuality in the media in a positive way was actually harmful and negative. It was a profoundly distressing moment for me, and I found that I could not help but ask him questions about what he meant and where he was coming from. I was completely unable to simply answer his question without taking the moment to employ some consciousness-raising. In the process of trying to understand what he was looking for and why, I came out to him. I still answered his question; I directed him to Gender Watch, talked about keywords, and how to identify peer-reviewed articles. But I still came out to him. He got flustered, and then said, “Well, I’m a Christian,” as if that explained everything. “So am I,” I replied. This seemed to really baffle him even more. I might have been the first openly gay person he had ever met, and I am certain that I was the first person who ever claimed to be both gay and Christian.

When I recounted this experience to various librarian colleagues right after this happened, I received a mixed response. While some librarians were supportive of my actions and empathized with the emotional distress I experienced, other librarians criticized me for inserting my own “agenda” into the encounter, as though that were a bad thing. But here’s the thing: of course I have an agenda, many librarians do, and I don’t think that we should pretend that we don’t. Agenda comes from the Latin verb ago, agere, egi, actum—meaning to do, to make, to drive, to spend time. I am an actor, I am an agent, I spend time, I do things. I think what matters here, though, is that my agenda is concerned with this unveiling of reality, of exposing sexism and homophobia and all of the ways human beings are marginalized and dehumanized. My agenda is meant to re-humanize, not dehumanize, and this is not a mask I can simply remove just because I am sitting at a reference desk. It is an integral part of who I am and what I do and why I do it because of my explicitly feminist approach to library work.

When I talk about feminist pedagogy to other librarians, many people respond by saying that it looks familiar: “I didn’t know that I was already doing feminist pedagogy!”A lot of what feminist pedagogy favors is consistent with the kind of interactive approaches to teaching instruction librarians tend to favor already. So what makes it feminist? What makes it a specifically feminist approach is the incorporation of consciousness-raising into the learning experience. It’s about empowering students to be both critical thinkers and critical agents of change in an unjust world full of inequity and oppression.

It is worth noting here that feminist pedagogy is a challenging practice. It is necessarily more effortful. It requires more affective investment from the teacher or librarian. Caring is rewarding, yes, but it can also be emotionally taxing, so self-care is an important idea to keep in mind here. Self-care, or making an intentional effort to do the things that feed and nourish you, is good for everyone, but I think it is especially so for feminist work because it is more emotionally demanding. Also, there can be resistance, from people who just don’t get it or don’t value the potential of this work, especially in the classroom environment. Sometimes students just want to be lectured to, they don’t want to think/pair/share or collaborate, or they just want someone to tell them what to do or what the “right” answer is. I also think that in this current higher education climate, in which market logic is applied to the educational setting so that education is seen primarily as a means of populating the workforce and not necessarily as a means of expanding and changing minds, students and teachers alike don’t really see the point of education as a way of consciousness-raising and changing the world. Customer service models do not always recognize people as whole people; it mostly just looks at a tangible transaction. So, in a way, feminist pedagogy resists this model by insisting on a compassionate and holistic view of a student.

Ultimately, despite the challenges, employing feminist pedagogy is worth it. Feminist pedagogy benefits learners in multiple enriching and powerful ways, and I’m talking about feminist pedagogy in terms of teaching methods but also in terms of content, the actual subject matter we teach. Feminist pedagogy also benefits the practitioner, the teaching librarian, because facilitating empowering experiences for library users is a rewarding, relationship-building experience. Employing feminist pedagogical strategies in my own work has been immensely gratifying and has helped me find meaning and purpose. It insists on the humanity of all participants in the learning experience, in the library, and this emphasis on care, compassion, and affirmation, and making visible the harms caused by inequity and oppression and undoing that harm, changes not just the lives of learners and librarian—it changes the world.


Belenky, M. F., B. M. Clinchy, N. R. Goldberger, and J. M. Tarule. (1997). Women’s Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind. New York: Basic Books.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Hannigan, J. A. (1994). A feminist standpoint for library and information science education. Journal of Education for Library &Information Science, 35(4), 297.

Hooks, B. (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Z. O’Leary (2007). The Social Science Jargon-Buster. London, United Kingdom: Sage UK.

“Guest of Choice” is an editorial initiative offering original contributions by librarians, academics, and public intellectuals who have something of interest to say to our core audience. The views or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Choice, ACRL, or the American Library Association. Interested in contributing a column? Contact Choice editorial director Bill Mickey.