The UN celebrated the International Year of Women in 1975. Since then, March 8th has been International Women's Day.

Photo: German Democratic Republic stamps, Wikipedia.

Feminist and gender theories in adult education

Feminist adult education is alive and well, argues Darlene Clover. Feminist approaches question the basic gendered assumptions of adult education.


“Gender inequality…remains among the greatest challenges of our times. Fed by deeply embedded discrimination against women and girls, it is wrong and costly, whether it interrupts economic progress, undercuts peace or restricts the quality of leadership. Ending it should be foremost among global and national goals.”

UN Women Annual Report, 2012-2013, p. 4



The United Nations, feminist scholar Sylvia Walby (2011) and adult educators Ostrouch-Kaminska and Vieira (2014) remind us that despite the gains of the feminist movement, gendered regimes remain stubbornly in tact within social and cultural organisation and functioning, politics, institutions, educational spaces, and male-female interpersonal relationships.

According to a recent global review, 35% of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of men, although national figures bring it closer to 70% (UN Women, 2013). Reports of misogynistic practice shrouded under the anonymity of social media are now rife, with online fora comments reminiscent of German Eberhard’s (1927) equation of feminism with immorality, lesbianism and the destruction of civilization (Jenainati & Groves, 2007).

In my own country of Canada, hundreds of Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered over the decades, occurrences all but ignored by governments and police alike (Taber, 2015). Moreover, a recent spate of sexist activities on university campuses led the past Governor General to characterise Canadian culture as ‘a culture of rape’ (Clover, Butterwick & Collins, in press).

Feminism is alive and well

Yet feminist adult educators report hearing problematic refrains in their adult education classrooms such as “Women have already attained equality so feminism is no longer needed” (e.g. Taber & Gouthro, 2006, p. 59). We must never under-estimate embedded gender constructions and beliefs and their implications in the lives of women (and men).
Yet Walby (2011) lends a more hopeful outlook, asserting that

“Feminism is not dead. This is not a postfeminist era. Feminism is still vibrant, despite declarations that it is over. Feminism is a success…Feminism is taking powerful new forms, which make it unrecognizable to some.” (p. 1).

Feminist adult education: a variety of critical lenses

Feminist adult education has no compact definition; it is not a regime of truth, prescription, dogma, or orthodoxy. But at its most basic level, feminist adult education involves the infusion of feminist analyses into the content, process and methods of teaching, learning and educative-activism. Feminism, equally at its most basic, is the systematic uncovering of sexual discrimination, exploitation, and oppression and its implications. Feminist adult educators interpret pedagogical principles, values and practices through a variety of lenses, today and as such, have brought critiques and expansions to the basic presuppositions in adult education, and even feminism itself.

A primary interrogation in feminist adult education has been the fundamental patriarchal nature and bias in the practices and theory of adult education and learning, as well as society (e.g. Carpenter, 2012; Manicom & Walters, 2012; Stalker, 1998; Thompson, 1997).

Whether the context was literacy, computer skills upgrading, or poverty and social marginalisation, patriarchal assumptions overlooked and thereby excluded, women’s various and differing experiences, needs, and knowledges. The over-arching assumption was that all adult learners were the same, and therefore, how we talked about and undertook adult education and learning, and by extension social equality, justice and change, was applicable across gender(s). But this neglected problematic power differentials between women and men in community, family and society. In essence, it silenced women, or narrowed their interventions and concerns to the personal and localised in contrast to the general and universal offered by male adult educator theoreticians.

Critical theories have their own gendered limitations

Over the years, feminist adult education theorising and practice has drawn on the works of Freire, Habermas, Gramsci and Marx. They have incorporated notions of materiality and class, political economy, communicative action, hegemony and ideology, what counts as knowledge, and relations of power. But feminists have also critiqued the gendered limitations of these dominant theories and discourses adopted in adult education.

More recently, feminist scholars have turned toward post-structural and postmodern theories emphasising difference, and more complex issues around identity (hybridity and sexual orientation, for example). Carpenter (2012) argues these discourses have greatly expanded women’s understanding of how the social relations of gender, race, class, age, ability, nation, and language interact, form and inform the experiences of adult learners in various pedagogical and social contexts. They have provided a space to question gender in relation to other inter-sectionalities and the depth this brings to discussions of change and justice.

(Post)-Colonialism as a growing framework

A growing theoretical framework being used by feminist adult educators in many parts of the world is colonialism and post-colonialism (e.g. Taber, 2015). In Canada for example, we ask ourselves what it means to live on indigenous land, and through that question, what constitutes citizenship, the nation state and justice for women and men. Decolonising feminist praxis is based on the transformation of self, and re-conceptualisations of identity within the larger contexts of imperialism. Very important to decolonising feminist discourse is political mobilisation. In particular, Freire’s belief that a critical pedagogy must link to social movements, and other forms of popular political struggle has galvanised feminist adult educators to connect with social struggle through research or other forms of community-engaged practice (e.g. Manicom & Walters, 2012; Taber, 2015).

“Pedagogies of possibility”

Feminist adult educators Manicom and Walters (2012) speak today of ‘pedagogies of possibility’ which “holds double meaning” (p. 3). On one hand, it suggests a grounding in a pragmatic assessment of what is feasible given current parameters of place, time and resources” in adult education and society (p. 4). On the other, possibility suggests that which “is yet to be imagined”; that which might become thinkable and actionable when gendered and other relations of power are “made visible, when understandings shake loose from normative perspectives and generate new knowledge and possibilities” (p. 5).

As Ranciere reminded us, “emancipation is the possibility of a spectator’s gaze other than the one that was programmed” (as cited in Lewis, 2013, p. 138). To this end, many feminist adult educators call upon the human aesthetic dimension as a political pedagogical project, to use the arts to enhance the ability to re-imagine the world, visually, performatively, poetically, musically and relationally (e.g. Butterwick & Dawson, 2005; Clover & Stalker, 2007; Gouthro & Jarvis, 2015; Lipson-Lawrence, 2005).

To borrow from Lissard (2012), when used as pedagogical praxis, art has a critical and political valence. The defiant imagination can also challenge “the constraints of expectation and the everyday….because the imagination – liberated by engagement with cultural expression – is necessary to the achievement of all we hope for as a society” (Wyman, 2006).


Butterwick, S. & Dawson, J. (2005). Adult education and the arts. In T. Fenwick, T. Nesbit & B. Spencer (Eds.), Context of adult education: Canadian perspectives (pp. 281-289). Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Carpenter, S. (2012). Centring Marxist-feminist theory in adult learning. Adult Education Quarterly, 62(1), 19-35.

Clover, D.E., Butterwick, S. & Collins L. (In Press). Making waves: Women, adult education and leadership in Canada. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Clover, D.E. & Stalker, J. (2007). The arts and social justice: Recrafting adult education and community cultural leadership. Leicester: NIACE.

Gouthro, P. & Jarvis, C. (2015). The role of the arts in professional education: Surveying the field. Studies in the Education of Adults, 47(1), 64-80.

Jenainati, C. & Groves, J. (2007). Introducing feminism: A graphic guide. London: Icon Books.

Lewis, T. (2012). The aesthetics of education: Theatre, curiosity, and politics in the work of Jacques Ranceiere and Paulo Freire. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Lipson Lawrence, R. (Ed) (2005). Artistic ways of knowing: Expanded opportunities for teaching and learning. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 107, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lissard, K. (2012). Venus in Lesotho: Women, theatre, and the collapsible boundaries of silence. In L. Manicom, & S. Walters, S. (Eds.) Feminist popular education in transnational debates (pp. 93-110). New York: Palgrave MacMillian.

Manicom, L. & Walters, S. (Eds.) (2012). Feminist popular education in transnational debates. New York: Palgrave MacMillian.

Ostrouch-Kaminska, J. & Vieira, C. (2014). Private worlds: Gender and the informal learning of adults. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Stalker, J. (1998). Women in the history of adult education: Misogynist responses to our participation. In S. Scoot, B. spencer & A. Thomas (Eds.), Learning for life: Canadian readings in adult education (pp. 238-249). Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Taber, N. (2015a). Learning gendered militarism in Canada: Lifelong pedagogies of conformity and resistance. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.

Taber, N. (2015b). Special Edition, Feminism in Canadian adult education. Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education, 27(2).

Taber, N. & Gouthro, P. (2006). Women and adult education in Canadian society. In T. Fenwick, T. Nesbit & B. Spencer (Eds.), Contexts of adult education: Canadian perspectives (pp. 58-67). Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Thompson, J. (1997). Words in edgeways: Radical learning for social change. Leicester: NIACE.

UN Women (2013). Annual Report, 2012-2013. Retrieved 05/10/15 from

Walby, S. (2011). The future of feminism. Cambridge: Polity Press

Wyman, M. (2004). The defiant imagination. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre.

Did you find this article?
  • Useful 
  • Interesting 
  • Easy to read