Making Room for Equal and Positive Representations of

Women in English Literature in the Classroom

Authored by: Jordan Smith (PED 3177A)


This wiki serves to address the issues of misrepresentation and underepresentation of women in today's English classroom. Besides unfolding the reality of these issues, this wiki will explore the benefits and strategies in deconstructing traditional texts while making available new texts with female writers and protagonists into the English curriculum, as well as provide teaching and assessment tools for fellow teachers. The information contained within this wiki and suggested resources are intended for educators teaching grade 9-12 English, but could be applied to elementary levels as well. I should also add that I have concentrated my research and pedagogy on full length texts such as novellas, novels and playwrights, and have excluded a full examination of the presence of poems and short stories written my women in the English classroom.

"Curriculum should function both as a window and mirror. Education should enable astudent to look through window frames to see the realities of others and intomirrors to see his or her own reality" - Emily Styles

Equity, Gender and the Curriculum:

The following is an excerpt taken from The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9 and 10: English (2007) documents:"Language is a fundamental element of identity and culture. As students read and reflect on a rich variety of literary, informational, and media texts, they develop a deeper understanding of themselves and others and of the world around them. If they see themselves and others in the texts they study, they will be more engaged in learning and they will also come to appreciate the nature and value of a diverse, multicultural society." (p. 4)The distinct similarity of this excerpt and the quote taken from Emily Style above, emphasizes the necessity of providing and teaching English texts in the classroom that widely represent the female gender. Despite the curriculum's awareness of students seeing themselves and others in the texts they read, there are very few full length texts written by women or featuring female protagonists read and taught in the English classroom in the past and today. This has detrimental consequences because it is critical that literature within the classroom provides students with "vicarious experiences in which they can identify with strong characters across a wide range oproject.jpgf human experiences which cross traditional gender boundaries" (NCTE, 1998, p. 1). The gender imbalance of male compared to female authors and protagonists in the English classroom can negatively distort the female student's perception of herself and the male student's conception of his female peer. Because of the severe negative implications of this beyond the classroom, it is imperative that educators attempt to deconstruct the existing misrepresentations of women and offer alternative representations within the English classroom in order to implement a gender-balanced curriculum.

Evidence Of Gender Inequity:

Arthur Applebee's (1989) report on the national study of the book-length works taught in high schools in the United States, demonstrates the tremendous imbalance of gender representation in the English classroom. A national survey was conducted in which department chairs were asked to submit the names of works studied by students. The top ten most frequently studied books included Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Huckleberry Finn, How to Kill a Mockingbird, Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men and Scarlet Letter. This was similar across Public, Catholic and Private boards with one exception - Private boards studied Odyssey instead of Of Mice and Men. This is then reflective of what the schools as a whole explicitly value as the foundation of their students' literary experience and education. Applebee notes that this study showed little change in overall balance from similar lists twenty-five years earlier. To read further:

feminism-3.jpgConnecting This To Inequities In The Present:

Because the study briefly described above was published in the late eighties and surveyed the texts studied in English classrooms in the United States, I found it necessary to compare them to the texts read in grades 9-12 in recent years in the Ottawa area. Not surprisingly, there has been very little change in the presence of women in English literature taught in the classroom. Lisgar Collegiate Institute's booklist for grades 9-12, including applied, academic and gifted levels, revealed a high level of underrepresentation of English female writers present in the school's English classrooms. Five out of approximately eighty-two texts (excluding anthologies and textbooks), and only one of which that appears before grade eleven, were written by women. The female writers include Jane Austen, Harper Lee, Jeannette Walls, Margaret Atwood and Virginia Woolf. This does not even come close to representing a gender-balanced curriculum. Over twenty years ago, Margaret Carlson (1989) claimed that "despite many strong efforts by individuals, excellent articles in professional journals and speeches at conferences, and even some modest textbook adaptations, the white male hero remains the staplefare in most of our courses over ninety percent of the time" (p. 30). Little did she know this would remain the case.
This link will take you to Lisgar Collegiate Institute's complete booklist for English, grades 9-12:
Lisgar Collegiate Institute Booklist, Grades 9-12

Negative Implications:

These gender inequities have several negative affects on female students. Below I have summarized some possible implications that Susan Shaffer and Linda Shevitz (2001) highlighted in "She Bakes and He Builds: Gender Bias in the Curriculum."
  1. attitudes and expectations for oneself and others - perception of one's self worth influenced by the absence of women; Wayne Marino (1995) stated that "textual practices have a part to play in the structuring and regulation of gendered identity formations" (p. 205).
  2. self-esteem - without positive role models, one has difficulty feeling important or significant
  3. academic achievement - female students perform better on questions with female references compared to male references; but because standardized texts still reflect gender bias, such questions are underrepresented
  4. career aspirations - world of labour appears divided

Education should aim to broaden one's horizons, not limit them. Therefore, the curriculum and teaching materials implemented in the classroom should be appropriately selected and target a diverse set of students.

Challenges To Theoretical Framework:

There are a few challenges to the implementation of gender balanced novels and playwrights in the English classroom:
  • many English teachers in the Junior and Intermediate levels may have up to four or five classes, which Helen Connell (1994) claims points to their heavy reliance on already published materials about the literary work (for example Cliffnotes)
  • subsequently, the majority of these reference traditional canon pieces of literature written predominantly by men
  • therefore, the criteria for a piece of literature to be taught in the classroom includes accessibility, which is controlled by the publishing companies and copyright owner, and whether that book has received critical or scholarly attention

"Unless lions tell their stories, tales of hunting will glorify the hunter"-African proverb


Teaching Approaches:

Two steps in creating a gender-balanced English curriculum:1. Critical LiteracyInitially teachers need to focus more on getting the students to assess bias texts, through literary criticism. Shaffer and Sheritz (2001) claim that in identifying biases and using biased material in creative and engaging ways, students are able to gain a high regard for others and awareness of different cultural and gender differences, which leads to a greater appreciation of diversity within the classroom. Resources are unlimited - just look at all the texts from the traditional canon! Marino (1995) claims that through interpretive and analytical reading practices "alternative positions for boys and girls in the classroom can be made available" (p. 210). 2. Create a Diverse and Gender Balanced Book ListThe next step is to implement new texts into the curriculum that offer alternative ways of meaning and knowing. You need to provide texts with gender representations that contradict the representations within the traditional canon, texts that examine the oppression of women from a female perspective and most importantly, texts written by women featuring female protagonists.
SUGGESTED TEXTS:slyv.jpgThe Awakening - Kate ChopinLives of Girls and Women - Alice MunroA Room of One's Own - Virginia WoolfTiger Eyes - Judy BlumeWuthering Heights - Emily BronteJane Eyre - Charlotte BronteThe Bell Jar - Sylvia PlathThe Handmaid's Tale - Margaret AtwoodPride and Prejudice - Jane AustenA Raisin in the Sun - Lorraine Hansberry

Don't Forget About the Boys!

Beth Berila et el (2005) claim that because masculinity is not singular, there exist many forms of masculinity that do not receive the benefits of patriarchy. In attempting to gender balance the English curriculum, it is then imperative to examine the biased representations of men within the traditional canon as well as provide students with alternative representations of masculinity in the texts they read. There needs to be a degree of differentiation in which all students, male or female can claim a place within the texts they are told to read. The Ontario Curriculum Grades 9-10 for English states that "in such a program, learning materials involve protagonists of both sexes from a wide variety of backgrounds" (p. 33).


Teaching Ideas:

1. Read and analyze books in pairs.Contrast the portrayal of women in texts written by female authors versusmale authors. Within these same texts or others, contrast therepresentations of male and female characters in general.
Ask students to work independently or in groups. To begin this contrast ask students to list the words or roles the authors uses to describe the different characters. Then ask them to make inferences about the characters.
Reading and Lit Studies1.4 - Make and explain inferences about both simpleand complex texts, supportingtheir explanations with statedand implied ideas from thetexts.
2. Invite a woman writer or critic to speak about the history and importance
of women's literature

Write or orally report on the main ideas and supporting details of the presenter..
Oral, Purpose 1.1 - Identify the purpose of severaldifferent listening tasks and set goals for specific tasks.
3. Implement narrative writing activities.A good beginning point in examininggender representations is to get students looking at their own characters within the pieces of literature they write.
Ask students to write a short story withouttelling them what they will be doing with it. The suspense will exicteand engage them.Then pair students up and ask them to examine the gender representations within their short stories. Ask them to discuss whether they think the representations arebiased or not.
Writing, Critical Literacy 2.5 - Explain how their own beliefs, values, and experiencesare revealed in their writing.
4. Examine how culture may affect gender roles within texts.
Pair Suzanne Fisher Staple's Haveli and Lensey Namioka'sApril or The Dragon Lady(texts suggested by NCTE)
Reading and Lit Studies 1.1 - Read student- and teacher-selected texts from diversecultures and historical periods,identifying specific purposes for reading.
5. a) Look at children's literatureto explore gender inequities by asking students to examinethe images. b) Analyse various media texts. Agood method to look at misrepresentations of both femalesand males.
a) Use the BerenstainBears collection to look at gender divide. Enoughby Marsha Skrypush is an excellent text written by awomen and featuring a female protagonist in which her gender does limit her.The protagonist is the strongest character in the text.b) Anything from advertismentsto films. Noir films are a good example but could be developed into a whole unit!
Reading and Lit Studies1.6 - Analyse texts in terms of the information, ideas,issues, or themes they explore, examining how various aspects of the texts contribute to the presentation or development of these elements.
*specific curriculum expectations from the Ontario Curriculum for Grade 9, English

  • to incorporate texts about and/or written by women either randomly throughout the term or dedicate a separate unit, but keeping in mind that the latter option might actually point to the minority status of women
  • look at various pieces of literature with different tones and styles including contemporary realistic fiction, fantasy/science fiction, historical fiction, folklore, biography/autobiography, personal narrative, informational texts and drama. It is crucial that in attempting to gender balance the English curriculum, the texts chosen are not limited to the more feminine styles of literature like journal writing


Formative Assessments:
Assessment should initially be based on how well students can identify biases within texts they are reading. This would include formative assessments such as group work, class discussions, and writing activities such as free-writing or reflection journals. Participation in these activities will increase the students' ability to engage independently in critical literacy.

Summative Assessments:
Assessment should then be based on culminating tasks that the students have been working on and you have identified as objectives at the start of the unit or term. For a subject like this, culminating tasks should be very open with an unlimited amount of options for students to choose from. Creativity is important. Essential to developing critical literacy is essay writing. By the end of the unit/term, students should be able to demonstrate proficiency in developing an argument and providing evidence from a given text or a text of their own choice.

Teacher Resources:

The links below will bring you to lists of suggested reading materials written by women and lots of teaching ideas:

2. english female lit.doc
3. 500 Great Books by Women (1994) by Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larsen & Holly Smith

These resources are great for teacher's trying to integrate literary criticism and/or feminist studies into the classroom:

1. Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents (2000) by Deborah Appleman
2. Interpreting Young Adult Literature Literary Theory in the Secondary Classroom (1997) by John Noell Moore
3. Encyclopedia of Feminism (1986) by Lisa Tuttle
4. Feminist Teacher (FT) Journal on JSTOR

Links to Relevant Curriculum Documents:
1. Ministry of Education - Ontario Curriculum Grades 9-10, English
2. Ministry of Education - Ontario Curriculum Grades 11-12, English
3. Ministry of Education - Greater Equity Means Greater Student Success

Works Cited:

Applebee, A. (1989, April). A Study of Book-Lengh Works Taught in High School English Courses. Report Series 1.2. Retrieved from

Berila, B., Keller, J., Krone, C., Laker, J. & Mayers, O. (2005). His Story/Her Story: A Dialogue About Including Men and Masculinities in the Women's Studies Curriculum. Feminist Teacher, 16(1), 34-52. Retrieved from
Carlson, M.A. (1989). Guidelines for a Gender-Balanced Curriculum in English, Grades 7-12. The English Journal, 78, 30-33. Retrieved from
Connell, H. (1994, Nov.). Reading Gender Bias in the High School Canon Novels. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English, Orlando, FL. Retrieved from
Ministry of Education. (2007). The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9-10: English. Retrieved from National Council of Teachers of English. (1998). Guidelines for a Gender-Balanced Curriculum in English Grades 7-12. Urbana, ILWayne, M. (1995). Deconstructing Masculinity in the English Classroom: A Site for Reconstituing Gendered Subjectivity, Academic Search Complete, 7, 205-20. Retrieved from, S., & Sheritz, S. (2001). She Bakes and He Builds: Gender Bias in the Curriculum. In Double Jeopardy: Addressing Gender Inequity in Special Education (pp. 115-131). Retrieved from