Questions of Feminist Power

A Self-Study of a Critical Incident
PowerSocial JusticeFeminist Theory
In this self-study, I examine a critical incident where I partnered with a fellow educator committed to social justice in an attempt to dialogue with three students who co-authored a sexist article in our school's newspaper. The planned dialogue was interrupted when the male students called upon a male administrator’s authority to admonish our attempt to discuss their writing that was not for our individual classes. Through a feminist lens, I analyze the problems with our approach and the "threads of power" (Foucault, 1980) embedded in our well-intentioned discussion.

Introduction to a Critical Sexist Incident

“That could not have gone worse,” Joan, a friend and fellow English teacher, said to me.

Joan and I were members of a professional learning community (PLC) committed to social justice at the high school where we taught in the Northeastern United States. Joan’s comment was in reference to our attempt to have a non-authoritarian conversation with three students. The conversation ended before it began leaving Joan and I feeling defeated, disheartened, and confused.

The focus of this self-study is the critical incident of this attempted dialogue. In this study, I analyze our choices, mistakes, and missteps, as well as the dynamics of power involved between the three students, our administrators, Joan, and me. The incident began with a school newspaper article supporting National Football League (NFL) player Antonio Brown who was accused of sexual assault by his former trainer, Britney Taylor (Madani, 2019). In the article, the student writers— all 12th grade, South Asian, and male—defended Brown while suggesting Taylor’s lawsuit was calculated and greedy. Joan and I were the current or former teachers of the three students, as well as members of the Social Justice PLC. In our commitment to justice, equity, and feminist pedagogy, we felt compelled to respond, so we planned to open a dialogue that we hoped would be restorative, feminist, and non-authoritarian. Our methods, while well-intended, were problematic across several layers of power—including gender, authority, and race.

Analyzing power is essential to the work of social justice to “reveal how power operates through normalizing relations of domination by presenting certain ideas and practices as rational and self-evident, as part of the natural order” (Bell et al., 2016, p. 18). In this self-study, I examined the problematic layers of power that arose when a feminist colleague and I attempted to enact egalitarian practices in imperfect ways and within a patriarchal institution where foundations of trust, care, and empathy were not established or valued.

A Feminist Framework

If we view feminism as an approach, a way to think about the world, it shifts the focus away from words, towards action. Feminist principles are not something that can be ‘achieved.’ They are cultivated through a reflective process that has no end. They grow, change and take shape as we do. (Olufemi, 2020, p. 19)

In feminist pedagogy and in social justice focused teacher education, reflection and collaboration that moves toward action are key (Forrest & Rosenberg, 1997; hooks, 1989, 1994; Taylor & Diamond, 2020). Feminist theory informed my reflection and examination of gendered power dynamics at play in the critical incident. Olufemi (2020) argued, “A feminism that seeks power instead of questioning it does not care about justice. The decision to reject this way of thinking is also a decision to reject easy solutions” (p. 5). Therefore, I question my own power and commitment to justice, as I reflect on my motivations, actions, and reflections, not only of our interaction with the students but also my interactions with my colleague and partner, Joan.


Increasingly, self-study has been employed in the pursuit of social justice in teaching and teacher education (Griffiths et al., 2004; Kitchen et al., 2022; Martin, 2020; Taylor & Coia, 2014; Taylor & Diamond, 2020). Recognized social justice research is a “daunting challenge to face,” Taylor and Diamond (2020) argued in the Self-Study of Teaching and Teacher Education Practices (S-STTEP) community: “we have the collective support to cultivate the courage and commitment to work through these issues” (p. 4). Several self-studies focused on gender, queer theory, and feminist theory have examined the complexity of power, emotion, and gendered perceptions in charged moments (Brubaker, 2014; Forgasz & Clemans, 2014; Hamilton & Pinnegar, 2014; Kitchen, 2014; Kuzmic, 2014; Martin, 2014, 2020). For example, using a feminist and epistemological approach, Forgasz and Clemans examined and reframed feelings as a “deliberate epistemological stand we took about what counts as knowledge” (p. 73). These self-studies continue to push boundaries of patriarchal and oppressive systems built into education.

Data Collection and Analysis

The primary data sources for this study were dialogue and my researcher’s journal. Hamilton and Pinnegar (2014) noted, “dialogue is the process for coming-to-know . . . . In this way, dialogue becomes a crucible in which knowledge is shaped, becomes linked to evidence and gains authority” (p. 49). Data from dialogues included those recorded and transcribed from two PLC sessions (one before and one following the critical incident); the dialogues between Joan and me, those with our students, and those with administrators and the faculty advisor were unrecorded but paraphrased and captured in my researcher’s journal reflections following each conversation. As noted by Cardetti and Orgnero (2013), the collaborative process of what they call, “cogenerative dialoguing” (p. 253) deepened their interdisciplinary reflection and moved them towards action (Tidwell & Jónsdóttir, 2020). Similarly, the ongoing dialogue between Joan and me helped us process and clarify our emotions and understandings related to the critical incident.

My researcher’s journal (RJ), where I reflected after each PLC meeting and after dialogues with other stakeholders that could not be recorded, provided space for iterative retrospection and preliminary analysis (Tidwell & Jónsdóttir, 2020). The third data source was derived from email exchanges between Joan, the students, and me (EM). Since the design of the study is feminist, qualitative, and collaborative, I established “trustworthiness” through collaboration, transparency, and dialogue (Coia & Taylor; 2009; Lyons & LaBoskey, 2002). I read through the data sources multiple times over one year to build connections and themes (Merriam & Tisdell, 2016). While initial analyses of this incident focused on the power the male students and administrators held, further rounds of analysis exposed the power I wielded, sometimes knowingly and sometimes subconsciously. To stretch and challenge my analysis, I shared my preliminary themes, my journals, and meeting transcripts with members of the PLC, including Joan, to gather their perspectives, clarification, and scrutiny (Loughran, 2007; Loughran & Northfield, 1998). Joan, who preferred not to be a co-author on this paper, did give her informed consent for me to proceed with publication, so long as I used a pseudonym to protect her identity.

The Critical Incident

On an October morning, I found a note on my desk pointing to an article in our high school’s newspaper in which three student authors (SA 1, SA 2, and SA 3) questioned athletic trainer Britney Taylor’s motivation for accusing NFL player, Antonio Brown, of sexual assault. Disturbed by what she read, Joan brought the article to me as the facilitator of a newly formed PLC focused on social justice—a group of fifteen teachers who met twice monthly to dialogue about issues of sexism, racism, homophobia, and injustice we experienced or observed in our classrooms and school. I shared the article with the PLC. Then, I took three actions of my own: a) I discussed the article with the student editor of the newspaper, b) I discussed it with SA 2, who was my former student, and c) I emailed the newspaper’s faculty advisor expressing a list of concerns.

“How do we make this a teachable moment?” (Author, TR 2).

At our next Social Justice PLC meeting, we discussed the article and potential ways we could respond. Our discussion centered on the question: “How do we make this a teachable moment for ourselves and our students?” (Author, TR 2). We considered writing a response to be printed in the school newspaper, contacting the faculty advisor as a collective, and speaking with the student authors and the student editors. We debated whether or not it was our place to speak with the students, whose place it was, and whether or not we could approach this as a teachable moment rather than a disciplinarian rebuke. As Joan and I were the current or former English teachers of the three students, the group decided that we were in the best position to dialogue with the students. Joan and I collaborated on an email to the students requesting a discussion about the article during a lunch meeting. The students agreed, and a date was set. On the day of the proposed meeting, one of the three students arrived. Joan, Student 2, and I sat around a square table in Joan’s classroom. Students 1 and 3 arrived at the meeting later. Student 3 sat down at the table, while Student 1 remained standing near Joan. Student 1 informed us that they had spoken to the vice principal who told them they did not have to participate in the meeting and that we were abusing our power since we graded them. Joan and I submitted that they were under no obligation to dialogue with us. Joan expressed that she valued her relationship with the students, cared about them, and assured them this was not meeting was not disciplinarian. The students left.

Joan and I attempted further conversations with the vice principal, principal, and faculty advisor of the school newspaper. Our administrators took the position that we should have only spoken to their faculty advisor. Since the article was not for one of our English classes, they told us the article was out of the bounds of our authority.

Forming of a “conscious, cooperative partnership” (hooks, 2003/2019)

As a newly formed dialogic community, the Social Justice PLC discussed the Antonio Brown article at our second official meeting. One of my first lessons as a new feminist facilitator was the understanding that a feminist approach to leadership in this group meant taking issues first to the community for consensus before acting of my own accord. For Joan, the most problematic action I took on my own was talking to SA 2 in a one-on-one dialogue. Having built a relationship with him over the previous year, I felt driven to address his participation in an article I felt contradicted the version of him I knew. Unintentionally, my action of speaking with SA 2 upset Joan. In our PLC meeting, Joan expressed her frustration:

For the sake of justice, we need to [give] all three the chance [explain] their involvement with it. . . . So, I was hoping we would be able to talk that out as a group. It seems unfair to me that the one kid has had a chance to defend his name. . . . Writers 1 and 3 have been completely thrown under the bus. . . . So, I think it’s really, really important how we handle it. And I think it’s important that we reach a group decision. It’s really delicate. A really delicate undertaking. And that’s also the reason I brought this article to the group rather than talking to the students myself or talking to [Advisor] or [Student 1] myself. So, that’s just— important to me that we talk about that. (TR 2)

Joan valued fairness and justice. She viewed my independent actions as problematic, as it gave only one of the students an opportunity to defend himself. Joan’s bus metaphor expressed to me how damaging my actions had been in Joan’s eyes. Joan also communicated her concern for this process as a “really delicate undertaking.” She had foregone individual action in favor of having a dialogue as a community of teachers, whereas I had leaped into action without considering the ramifications. In prioritizing my relationship with my student, I had not considered Joan or her students. I had not acted fairly. Taking a more feminist approach, I realized, meant communicating and collaborating on actions and decisions together. As hooks (2003/2019) emphasized, a key principle of solidarity is “to form a conscious, cooperative partnership that is rooted in mutuality” (p. 63). I had missed an opportunity for cooperative partnership with Joan before taking action. Thus, I needed to build the foundations of mutuality with Joan as we moved forward.

Threads of Power (Foucault, 1980): “How do you take a feminist approach inside a patriarchal building?” (RJ, 31 Oct.)

The conversations Joan and I had with the students and our administrators centered on ideas of power and authority both explicitly and implicitly. SA 1 accused Joan and me of “abusing our power.” Our vice principal scolded us about “proper channels.” As Gore (1992) reminded me, power is not property nor a zero sum. Gore cited Foucault’s (1980) explanation: “Power is employed and exercised through a net-like organization. And not only do individuals circulate between its threads; they are always in the position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power” (p. 98). In our interactions with the students and the administrators, we were all “undergoing and exercising” some threads of power. These threads of power complicated the students’ reception of our request to dialogue. Joan and I held power in a way the students did not: we were teachers in positions of authority, we were older, we held tenured professional positions, we graded them and held sway over their future educational pursuits, and we were white women speaking to students of color. The three students of South Asian descent did not have the racial and cultural power and privilege we held (Taylor, 2022). We could not shed or reject that power, nor could we pretend like it did not exist.

I was the former teacher of SA 2 and was writing his recommendation for college. Joan was the current teacher of SA 1 and 3. Ahead of this meeting, could Joan and I have acknowledged the power we held in ways that would have mitigated our students’ fears? In an attempt to address some of the power imbalance, I submitted my student’s recommendation ahead of our scheduled conversation and assured him the conversation had no bearing on my recommendation. SA 2 had to trust that I would write him a positive letter (he was later accepted into his first choice, a prestigious university). In reflection, I could have given him a copy of the recommendation I had written for him, which might have assured him that I had no intention of harming his college prospects.

Joan and I intended to model a constructive dialogue about the article the students wrote (Loughran, 2007). We initially imagined this meant inviting the students to share their concerns about being falsely accused of assault; then, helping the students understand the complexity of sexual assault, and the tendency for women not to report (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, 2023), and the ramifications of accusing a sexual assault victim of greed—especially in a school publication that could follow them into their college life and careers beyond school (Taylor & Klein, 2020). Instead, the way the conversation did (and did not) occur repositioned us as learners. Despite our good intentions, we misjudged the weight of our power and position as teachers and how that dynamic could potentially be received or experienced by our students. Is it possible to enact feminist pedagogy and egalitarian approaches when the community ascribes to patriarchal, authoritarian, and punitive power and justice?

Our students perceived a power struggle with their teachers that put them at a disadvantage. Interestingly, they also held threads of power that they wielded—consciously or unconsciously—to great effect. First, they used their voices to publish a piece in the school newspaper that gave them a platform to support an accused predator. Their piece ran without a counter, a trigger warning, or the label “Opinion Editorial.” They were young men defending a man and flipping the narrative on a woman to position her as perpetrator rather than victim. Second, SA 1 and 2 increased their power through an administrator, a man with a higher position in the school than Joan and I held. Third, SA 1 remained standing, giving him an increased physical presence in the room (Taylor, 2022). And finally, by accusing us of abusing our power as teachers, they positioned themselves as victims of oppressive tyranny. I reflected,

Our attempt to approach this topic as a community in dialogue felt interrupted by talk of authority and power and abuse of that power and retribution. Rather than be seen as concerned people who care about you, the student felt afraid and defensive. [Student 1’s] response was to go to our superior (a man). His enactment of his power was to stand during the meeting while the rest of us sat around a common table. (RJ, 31 Oct.)

I perceived SA 1’s standing positioning over Joan during the brief interaction as a way to establish dominance, intimidate, and feel powerful. Of the three students, he was the most visibly agitated and vocal. His tone was accusatory and reprimanding. Seeking out the vice principal, seemed to be an attempt to go up the “chain of command.” SA 1 and 3 drew on the paternalistic power of the vice principal to defend against what they perceived as an attack. They appealed to the patriarchal hierarchy to avoid a confrontation—a successful maneuver to avoid dialogue and shift the spotlight of wrongdoing to Joan and me. We were summarily admonished by the administration. In reflection, I wrote:

There seemed to be a paradox embedded into the power conversations today: at once, Joan and I were presented as having too much authority over the students (because we grade them) and at the same time having no authority over the students (because this isn’t our terrain). Do educators have the right or the duty or the ability to address issues of values, morals, ethics, and beliefs with students? When those beliefs are also part of the public discourse that we are having as a nation? If we had these conversations in the confines of our classroom spaces, would we then be within our boundaries? …Our attempt to discuss with our two male administrators also did not result in open dialogue where everyone had the opportunity to voice their concerns. Instead, we were silenced. (RJ, 31 Oct.)

Joan and I were treated in the usual authoritarian manner. We were verbally reprimanded. We were reminded of our position and lack of authority. The traditional hierarchy was reestablished. It is no wonder the students responded as they did. Our students likely assumed the conversation they would have with us would be similar to the one we experienced with the male administrators. By their senior year of high school, how many similar authoritarian conversations had they witnessed or experienced? Why would they have expected an open and honest dialogue of mutual respect when “we work in institutions where knowledge has been structured to reinforce dominator culture” (hooks, 2003/2019, p. 91)? I empathized with the students. While I know Joan and I were not seeking revenge or discipline or even their repentance, we planned an interaction that was never going to be equal or safe for all parties. Ellsworth (1992) pointed out the paradox of “emancipatory authority” as “the failure of critical educators to come to terms with the essentially paternalistic project of traditional education” (p. 99). I overestimated our feminist approach to stand against the powerful patriarchal establishment already in place.

Choosing Care Over Justice: “How do we as feminist teachers use power in a way that is not coercive, dominating?” (hooks, 1989, p. 52).

hooks’ (1989) question continues to resonate. Joan and I asked ourselves this question and attempted to plan our conversation accordingly. We believed we could engage in a dialogue that would not be coercive or dominating. Joan and I approached the conversation from a feminist foundation and perspective. As Joan stated hopefully, “just given how we’ve been talking about it—I don’t have any doubt that it will come across to them that we don’t think that they’re terrible” (TR, 2). We grappled with how we would conduct this conversation. Ahead of the meeting, I wrote in my journal: “Can we have this meeting without making them feel like they are being persecuted and punished? How can we do this appropriately?” (RJ, 21 Oct.). While not completely confident, we felt that our good intentions were enough to guide an open and productive dialogue. We convinced ourselves that by expressing empathy and care, we could engage them in a thought-provoking and enlightening discussion about the complexities of how and when, and why sexual assaults are reported when they are. Unfortunately, planning an interaction with feminist ideals does not translate to students feeling safe or empowered (Ellsworth, 1992).

To enact our feminist dialogue, Joan and I intentionally placed ourselves at eye level with the students by positioning ourselves around a table conducive to dialogue rather than lecture. Student 1 keenly disrupted the roundtable by remaining standing. When he announced that the vice principal told them they did not have to talk with us, we agreed the meeting was mandatory and apologized for the implication. Joan repeatedly assured them that she cared about them. In having to weigh our hopes for justice and our care for our students, Joan and I chose care over justice by choosing not to move forward with the dialogue (Gilligan, 2014; Noddings, 1999, 2012). We explicitly stated our value and care for them, our intentions not to treat this as a disciplinary meeting, and our assurance that the article would have no bearing on their grades or recommendations.

Feminist Community and Collaboration as Vital Support System

The outcome of this interaction appeared to be a missed opportunity, a bungled attempt at a teachable moment, and a mass of confusion and emotions that left no one feeling better than before. The one consolation was the budding partnership between Joan and me and the PLC community. While I began the endeavor acting on my own, I found my way to a collaboration that was joyful and supportive. In the angst and frustration that marked the interactions with the students and administrators, my researcher’s journal highlights one notable positive amidst the stress:

Sometimes we [met] as Joan worked through her prep periods to create the costumes for the upcoming school play. And with the marking period ending and both of us having piles of grading to do. Teachers juggle and juggle and juggle.… I have found allies and support in the group in ways that have helped me navigate difficult and stressful situations. My allies have helped me to be brave. They’ve helped me to clarify and articulate my positioning, my feelings, my concerns, my actions (RJ, 7 Nov.).

The work of disrupting sexism and patriarchal hierarchy in schools is exhausting and never-ending and often filled with roadblocks, dead ends, U-turns, distractions, and obstacles (Blackburn et al., 2010). Having a partner to navigate those obstacles made the path forward more manageable and sustainable (Griffiths & Poursanidou, 2005). Joan and I could commiserate, share the tension, and plan potential responses. The PLC further provided us a space of empathy, care, solidarity, and support (Taylor et al., 2022; Taylor & Klein, 2018). Looking ahead, more self-studies can build on this critical incident and the work of Taylor and Klein (2018, 2020) to examine the power of feminist friendships over time in disrupting the patriarchal institutions.


The work to transform patriarchal institutions is complex and difficult. The complexity includes self-proclaimed egalitarian, critical, and feminist educators continually examining the ways in which we unintentionally reproduce the harms of the patriarchal systems we are attempting to transform. Our experience reinforced a haunting feeling: creating feminist communities inside our own classrooms seemed possible, but challenging the larger institution in which those classrooms were housed remained a fantasy. Ahmed (2012) explained,

To work as a feminist often means trying to transform the organizations that employ us. This rather obvious fact has some telling consequences. I have learned about how power works by the difficulties I have experienced in trying to challenge power. (pp. 89–90)

The questions and tasks ahead for feminist teachers and teacher educators persist: how do we challenge and dismantle patriarchal institutions from within? How do we prepare teachers for a seemingly insurmountable task? Partnership, collaboration, and reflection can aid in the endeavors on individual levels, but larger webs of feminist mentorship and collaborative communities of activism will be critical.


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Kelly Lormand

Montclair State University

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