FIU sheds light on women in history through forward-thinking class

Photo by Harold Mendoza on Unsplash.

American historian Laurel Thatcher once said that “well-behaved women seldom make history.”

Thatcher was clearly onto something, as Florida International University offers a course dedicated to those rule-breaking women across time.

“Evolution of the Femme: From Witches to Madam Vice President” gives FIU students the opportunity to learn about the challenges that women have faced in society and their evolution to where we find ourselves today.

FIU Professors Grisel d’Elena and Niurca Marquez co-teach the class, which is offered every spring semester. The most recent section of this course just finished this week on the Modesto A. Maidique Campus.

The inner workings of the course were presented in March by d’Elena and Marquez at the FIU Tuesday Times Roundtable talk, a weekly interactive discussion between students and guest speakers. Even more fitting, the talk was held on International Women’s Day.

As 30 students listened and took notes, d’Elena and Marquez broke down the systemic issues in society that perpetuated sexism, even highlighting the instances in higher education of not treating women as truly equal.

FIU student Patricia Silva attended the talk and was impacted by the content. When asked what she took away from the discussion, Silva didn’t hesitate to answer.

“I learned that we, as women, need to keep being strong to achieve our goals,” Silva said.

At the end of the discussion, d’Elena and Marquez highlighted “Evolution of the Femme” by explaining that it is fundamental to give women representation inside and outside of the classroom.

According to d’Elena, “Evolution of the Femme” gives students the opportunity to acquire a better understanding of womanhood within multiple different topics.

“Students learn about identity, gender, politics, religion, philosophy, and even writing skills,” she said.

Students in this class also have the opportunity to take trips to New York and Washington D.C. to witness women working in different positions. For instance, Marquez enthusiastically pointed out in her presentation that students who go to the nation’s capitals get to witness and interact with women working on The Hill.

This class doesn’t just allow students to witness politicians working, though. “Evolution of the Femme” students are immersed in the world of politics, and even encouraged to continue down that path, if desired.

“All students are trained to apply for D.C. internships that are guaranteed if the students would like to pursue them,” d’Elena said.

The reason for this is to encourage students to set their sights on their futures and get involved in the action around them, experience of course that breaks out well beyond the four walls of a classroom.

“It is an opportunity to begin a journey earning your place in politics in Washington D.C.,” d’Elena said. “A lot of times, students don’t have the opportunities to apply for internships in time, or don’t know how to shape their statements.”

Beyond the political arena, “Evolution of the Femme” also focuses on “the treatment of women” in multiple different fields, d’Elena said.

One facet of this course is religion, a topic d’Elena is very comfortable with. She is an adjunct professor for Religious Studies, in addition to her work with Women’s and Gender Studies and International Relations.

Learning about different topics, such as The Salem Witch Trials, provides students with yet another unique experience.

Not only are students made aware of the societal discrimination and treatment of women throughout history, but they get a chance to see it up close and personal.

“They get to visit the places we speak of throughout the course,” d’Elena said. “It’s not just a learning experience, but for those who believe: It can be a spiritual experience.”

As discussed in their Tuesday Times Roundtable talk, d’Elena and Marquez are focused on the interdisciplinary perspective of educating students about women and their experiences throughout history. And it’s a perspective that FIU is clearly sharing, as well.

The university, in fact, hosted a Zoom panel,  “Future of the Information Age,” during this year’s spring semester, highlighting the importance of education and inclusion in our world.

Dr. Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, executive director of the Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver Center for the Advancement of Women in Communication, spoke of the necessity of gender equality in society during the session.

“We are all aware that women make up more than half the population of our country,” Kopenhaver said. “And it is important that we have a gender balance in all the forms in which we communicate information so that we can build a more equitable and inclusive society.”

In the same panel, Marsheila Hayes, vice president of diversity and inclusion at Fox Corporation, shared her support for the role of education.

“I think that education, wherever it may be, is incredibly valuable,” Hayes said. “We’re working to intentionally invest in ourselves. I think that education is one of the best investments that you can make in yourself.”

FIU concurs. “Evolution of the Femme” is a class that highlights the sheer significance of educating people about what women have been through, and what they are continuing to endure, as a result.

But what is one last thing you need to know about this course? It’s simple. It’s not solely for women.

“This course is fundamental to students of all genders at FIU specifically because it shows the challenges that women of all races and ethnicities (within the context of the United States and the United Nations) have had in comparison to our male counterparts,” d’Elena said.

By including students of all genders and backgrounds in interactive learning experiences, the class is truly seeking to engage FIU students in furthering the study of women in education.

During the roundtable discussion, Marquez explained that society tends to question the success of women in any way other than what’s deemed acceptable and that the playing field has never been easy for women. The playing field has never been equal, either.

But classes like “Evolution of the Femme” are changing the narrative by including women in the history they were left out of. And it will be back next spring.

Amanda Gray is a Cuban-American student majoring in digital media at FIU. She intends to pursue a career as a news anchor, bringing to life her passion for communication and advocacy. Gray has enjoyed extensive international travel and uses her global perspective to highlight stories and communities.