Another woman literacy worker said: "Women want a women-only support group because they need a safe space. Men don't support each other, so a men-only support group is a contradiction. Women support men. So a mixed group is a men's support group" (4).
All the programs I visited in the first phase of the research would identify themselves as "learner-centred" and community-based. Yet, although commonly used, these are difficult terms to define. For example, Elaine Gaber-Katz and Gladys Watson in their new study of community-based literacy identify some contradictions between learner-centredness and empowerment of individuals. "A point of some tension," they write, "is whether a self-determined curriculum, which focuses on the individual learner's experience, can also be a 'social change' curriculum that will support the empowerment of individuals and the community through collective social action" (5).
Placing individual students at the centre of the program may help resolve some of the authority issues inherent in one-to-one or teacher-centred programming. However, it does not necessarily confront other contradictions- those that arise out of differences in race, sex, class background, abilities, source of income, immigration status, and so on.
What about the men?
My first response to being repeatedly asked this question was frustration that, even for an afternoon, we couldn't focus on women's experience, on women's learning needs. We had to keep coming back to the men. By finally paying attention to the context, I realized there were at least two different questions being asked.
The first question was: What are we going to do for men who don't want or who are unable to change? How can we guarantee these men a safe place in a program that has decided to include woman-positive activities? This question seemed to assume that the woman-positive women should supply sexist men with a safe place before they proceed with activities that are "up-front" designed for women.
The second question was: What are we going to for the women who are in contact with these men? How can we guarantee them a safe place in a program that has decided to include woman-positive activities? This question seemed to assume that the woman-positive women should ensure that other women have support and protection before they proceed with activities that are "up-front" designed for women.
These are questions we need to consider seriously both as we begin this second phase and as we reflect on and document what happens in each location. For example, we may want to ask: Is it our responsibility to work with the men, or even to try to interest men in taking some responsibility for working with other men? We seem to have little ambivalence in terms of our responsibility to continue working with the women in a way that provides them with necessary support. Yet, if we do take on the responsibility of working with the men, that will leave us very little time, energy or resources to continue our work with women.
Why do we have to fight to do something positive for women without having to do something equally for the men? The response is often that we can't do something woman- positive because then we would be seen as no longer working with "learners" or with the "community." As I continued my discussions, I began to recognize two suspicions lurking behind these responses.
First, women who want to work with women are practically suspect. They are feminist and will, therefore, have a biased agenda and their practice will discriminate and bring about division within the program and within the community. (As if that division did not already exist.)
Second, women who want to work with women are theoretically suspect. Feminist theory breaks solidarity along sex lines and reinforces difference rather than commonality. Since emancipatory literacy theory has been built on an empowerment model that does not distinguish between student and student, community member and community member, making these distinctions based on sex is disempowering. (As if not making distinctions based on sex is not disempowering.)