Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Mysterious Origins of My Feminism

Let me share a little secret: I honestly can't remember when I started self-identifying as a feminist. 

A few years ago, I remember a friend in Boston saying that my feminism was one of my defining characteristics, that I was one of the most feminist women he knew. I was surprised and flattered, but mostly surprised. It's not like I'm all that active in the community and I know of a number of women whom I consider to be more hardcore about their feminism (such radical feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson who is celibate because she's heterosexual but thinks all heterosexual penetrative sex is a form of rape. Now THAT's extreme feminism). 

And yet, I can't deny it -- when tasked with choosing a theme for my writing course at Emerson, I immediately chose gender. Well, actually, first I chose the Women's Movement, but switched to gender in an attempt to be more inclusive and less political. Gender is the theme of the course I currently teach at UWEC. Many of my students are pleasantly surprised at how much they end up investing in the topic and comments on end-of-year evaluations like "This course opened my eyes and made me see things differently" warm my heart. But then, of course, there are a few comments like these:

"If you are going to teach a class on gender, get an instructor that isn't biased to one side of gender issues."

"I feel the proffessor [sic] pushed her feminist views to [sic] much"

"Theme seems sexist; the professor's personal views were apparent throughout"

Cat's out of the bag, y'all. Turns out, I'm a raging feminist! My students have figured it out!

But wait -- is that so bad? Let's be clear, I'm teaching writing and critical reading, not Women's Studies. And I do believe I keep the focus on those skills. But is it really the worst thing in the world for a teacher to have an opinion? I mean, if I were a racist, I could see the problem. But being a feminist simply means I think men and women should be treated equally. Is it such a terrible shortcoming that my students have picked up on the fact that I'm a woman with some views about things? 

If I were gay, would I need to hide the fact that I support gay rights? Surely no one would say I would need to present "both sides" of that issue -- i.e. bring in some hate speech just for the sake of balance. So yeah, I'm a woman and I support equal rights for women. (And for the record, I use texts in my class from the IWF, an anti-feminist conservative org, and "equity feminist" Christina Hoff Sommers, whom I personally loathe, so that seems pretty balanced to me). 

I don't hate men; my best friend is a man. I'm dating a man whom I love very much. The world is full of awesome men. I just think women should be respected as human beings and valued based on the same qualities as men, namely their abilities, compassion, and character, not how hot they look in lingerie. We live in a world where shit like this exists:

and yet many of my students, both male and female, think feminism is obsolete, no longer necessary.The fact that so many people put so much energy into making feminism seem unappealing to young women is precisely why it is so necessary. Duh.

But where did my own feminism come from? My mother is not a feminist. She certainly didn't try to shield me from Disney or girly girl stuff. I wore tons of pink. I told everyone I wanted to be a princess when I grew up. I actually once, in second grade, cried because I wasn't blonde and blue-eyed and my name wasn't Crystal. True fact.

I remember first feeling what I'd now identify as feminist outrage in high school when the philosophy behind my school's dress code was explained to me in terms of sexy outfits (spaghetti straps, short skirts) being too distracting for boys....implying that their education was somehow prioritized over mine and that without the dress code, the poor male students would never be able to concentrate. I didn't really object to the dress code until it was framed for me in that way. Boys had to wear coat-and-tie and let me tell you, some of the butt-ass ugly ties these dudes wore was PLENTY distracting to my learning. 

Fast-forward to college, where I took my first and only Women's Studies class junior year.  Yes, you read that correctly. I took exactly one Women's Studies class in college and it was the intro survey course. So for anyone who thought it was my liberal college education that made me into the feminist I am today, think again. Some foundations were laid, surely -- I was blown away by much of what I read and was exposed to in that class -- but it's not like I took any follow-up upper level courses. I was an English major, I had a lot of Virginia Woolf to read. And I was more focused on theatre and a cappella than academics anyway. 

After college, I started working for a rare book & manuscript firm, and after a year of being an administrative assistant, I was upgraded to cataloging material for one client. A client who was specifically building a collection of books/ephemera by and about American women. And this is maybe when I started to, how should I put it, transition. I handled some incredible primary source material from the suffrage movement -- letters, pamphlets, speeches, photographs. I got a little obsessed. So many incredible women fighting and writing and nearly dying for what they believed in. I was hooked. And I was struck by how little I really knew about American women's history - why is it that I studied the Civil Rights Movement in AP U.S. History but not the Women's Movement? Why did I have to write papers on the War of 1812 but not the Feminine Mystique? 

So yes, the theme of my writing class is personally important. Because most of these kids will never take a Women's Studies class. I want my students to become better writers. I don't expect them to be converted to feminism because of my class; that's not my secret (or not-so-secret) agenda. But if it happens? Yeah, I don't feel too badly about that. Sorry.

But not really.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Everything's...Gonna Be Alright?

This image, by Christopher Clark, has been my desktop wallpaper for about a year and a half now. I saw it exhibited as part of Cooper-Hewitt's "Graphic Design: Now in Production" show in May 2012. I was at the time gearing up for another major life change; I had decided, despite having a good job and being in a stable (at the time I would have probably said "good-ish") relationship, to uproot myself from Boston and move back to midwest after over a dozen years on the East Coast.

I felt stuck. I felt like I was going through the motions. While I loved my friends in Boston and was successfully supporting myself, something was not clicking. So I moved to Chicago. And as I wrote about nearly a year ago, I got very very depressed. I was lethargic, I felt utterly purposeless. On days when I didn't have to be anywhere, I stayed in pajamas and ordered pizza (and not even good pizza! I'm talking Dominos, which, when you live in Chicago, is a travesty to consume). 

So Clark's typographic art - the clash of the beauty of the image and its sad, sober message - really resonated with me. I looked at it a lot, when I was trying to convince myself to write poetry, or blog, or even just write a damn Yelp review, anything to get my brain functioning, to reconnect to my writing self.

Tonight, for the first time since May 2012, I am thinking about changing my desktop wallpaper. Because something kind of incredible and unexpected has happened and the message no longer strikes a chord.

On July 15 of this year, I got a phone call that changed everything - an offer to teach at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. I was a little terrified; until Eau Claire, I had only lived in major metropolitan areas. You know, places with amazing restaurants and good public transit and culture around every corner. I read Eau Claire's Wikipedia page and was not sure how I would fare in the Horseradish Capital of the World, population 65,000. Now, I know 65K is not tiny -- but compared to Chicago, it feels pretty podunk. When I visited the campus, there was a deer hanging out in the student parking lot. 

But it was a good job offer and I didn't have much going on in Chicago -- part-time teaching gigs supplemented by hostessing at a trendy late-night dining spot downtown. I loved living in Chicago but nothing was tethering me there, so once again, I decided to just move. My contract was only for a year, so I figured if I hated Wisconsin, I could always move back to Chicago after the school year.

I have now been here for 4 months. I have no plans to leave anytime soon. It actually feels like home to me, the girl who couldn't wait to live in NYC after graduating from college. The people I have met here feel like lifelong friends. I love my job and my colleagues. I love my little weird one-bedroom apartment. I love my "new" car (new to me - it's a 2004 Honda Civic. Her name is Loretta.). I am writing again. I'm singing in the shower again. Something inside tells me I could really be happy here, for a while. Forever? I'm not sure. I do miss some city stuff (mostly ethnic food and liquor stores that are open past 9pm and not having to drive everywhere) and I have yet to experience true "Wisconsin cold," but if I can stay here and keep teaching next year, I absolutely will. 

Oh, and another really unexpected thing: I'm in love! With a wonderful man who makes me so, so happy. I have been in a lot of different kinds of relationships over the years that offered some of the things I was looking for, but always with some compromises. I had pretty much given up on certain things and was starting to believe that if I wanted to get married and have a family, I would just have to settle for close enough, assuming I could find someone who would have me. But this is different. It's still a new relationship, so who knows - the last time I wrote on this blog about being happy and in love, the shit hit the fan almost immediately (and the guy in question turned out to be a total sociopath). So we'll see. Fingers crossed.

Yesterday, some psych students came by my office and asked if I would take a quick survey as part of a project they were doing, comparing beliefs/values of humanities vs. non-humanities faculty. The questions were about being satisfied with your life -- one statement that I had to rate on a scale of strongly disagree to strongly agree was "My life is very close to my ideal." Six months ago, I would have strongly disagreed with that statement. And now, after a momentary flash of "well, ideally I would be 10 lbs lighter, a millionaire, and have a book deal, and an apartment in Paris" I realized what I do have, which is pretty ideal: a job I love that is rewarding and pays me a living wage, a family that is healthy and speaking to one another, friends that care about me, an apartment I like to spend time in, enough money to get by, and a man who thinks I'm beautiful and smart and tells me so daily. If my ideal is to have a fulfilling, happy life filled with adventures and wonderful people, I'm getting pretty close.

I circled "somewhat agree". I mean, a book deal would still be nice.

Definitely have to find a new image for my desktop wallpaper. Being cynical about life no longer feels authentic. Don't worry, I don't think I'll ever look as happy as the people in this ad who are really ecstatic about the accredited nursing program that offers flexible night and online classes:

Come on, NO ONE is THAT happy (or has that group of wildly attractive, racially diverse friends).

Monday, November 4, 2013

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry

First, a confession: I haven't been writing poetry lately. I haven't been in the right head space. Which is an excuse, I know, and not a very good one. I actually just felt ready to reread some of my thesis (a collection of 40 poems) and I'm surprised that I don't hate it all. There are poems in there I feel ready to revisit, perhaps revise. (Yeah, I know, they are supposedly "done" because they were part of my thesis, but a lot them aren't really done. And when is a poem done, anyway?)

So I read this poem today and I loved its negativity, its concession of futility. It's a downer of a poem, for sure...and yet, because it's good, it made me feel good. Counter to the message of the poem, the poem's very existence made me happy. I love reading good poems! I love that people are still writing good poems! Whenever I find a new poem I admire, I feel hopeful even if the poem's message is darkly Hobbesian, a.k.a. life is brutal and short and the world we live in is terrible. Natalie Shapero, the world is a little less terrible with this poem in it.

Not Horses

What I adore is not horses, with their modern
domestic life span of 25 years. What I adore
is a bug that lives only one day, especially if
it’s a terrible day, a day of train derailment or
chemical lake or cop admits to cover-up, a day
when no one thinks of anything else, least of all
that bug. I know how it feels, born as I’ve been
into these rotting times, as into sin. Everybody’s
busy, so distraught they forget to kill me,
and even that won’t keep me alive. I share
my home not with horses, but with a little dog
who sees poorly at dusk and menaces stumps,
makes her muscle known to every statue.
I wish she could have a single day of   language,
so that I might reassure her don’t be afraid —
our whole world is dead and so can do you no harm.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Reasons Why I'm a Feminist This Week

Last week, I had the pleasure of getting to hear a personal hero of mine, Jessica Valenti, speak. She gave an inspiring and powerful talk that reaffirmed all the reasons that I call myself a feminist and am proud to do so. In my teaching work, I meet a lot of young, intelligent women who are hesitant about the label, usually because they imagine it means they have to stop shaving their legs and start attending man-hating rallies. Or just get a lot more pissed off about stuff. As Valenti noted, a quick Google image search confirms these stereotypes - the first subcategory that comes up is "angry."

Valenti began her talk addressing this issue of young women not wanting to call themselves or be called feminists. And then she explained why she was a feminist THIS week, as in, the recent events that fuel her to do the work she's doing (which is blogging about women's & gender issues for The Nation and generally being an awesome activist role model).

So I'm going to steal a page from Valenti's playbook and tell you why I'm a feminist this week.

1. The reports coming out of Emerson College (where I went to grad school) re: their failure to take sexual assault reports seriously. This is the case on far too many college campuses -- administrators prefer to handle the matter without actual police involvement, and as result, rapists get wrist-slaps and the female students brave enough to come forward and report their assault end up feeling traumatized all over again.

2. On a related note, this well-intentioned but highly problematic Slate article by "Dear Prudence" columnist Emily Yoffe, which implies that if college women get less drunk, they would get assaulted less frequently. So if you're drunk, you're kind of asking for it, maybe? A firestorm of debate has erupted over this piece (and some great satire, like this piece that reverses the genders and advises men to drink less so as to not end up raping women), and while obviously underage binge-drinking is a problem in its own right, suggesting causality (as opposed to correlation) is dangerous and dumb. If you need a refresher on causality vs. correlation, this graph does a good job: 

3. Speaking of rape culture, this video by an Indian sketch comedy group is the best thing I've watched on the internet in a while. It's funny and also incredibly disturbing.

4.  The fact that Plan B costs $50. I don't know why that's bugging me this week, but it is -- it's legal without a prescription, which is good, but it's not exactly in an accessible price range.

5. Finally, I came across this over the weekend when I was perusing a website listing 100 easy Halloween costume ideas.

                          53. Gift box or Christmas gift (suggested for a young girl)

Emphasis mine. I'm really dying to know why this is a great costume for little girls -- to further remind them that they are a prize waiting to be unwrapped? Sounds a lot like the subject of Valenti's 2009 book, The Purity Myth, which was also made into a documentary. Watch the trailer here:

Young women shouldn't grow up thinking that their self-worth and their sexual identities are intertwined. Your decision to have sex or not have sex does not impact your value as a human being. The whole mythos surrounding the hymen is out of control - as this excellent "How Stuff Works" podcast explains, it isn't, as most people think, a membrane that can be punctured, but rather a ring of tissue that gets stretched from a variety of activities (and never, even when "'intact," completely covers the vaginal opening). SCIENCE!  

So that's what's making me a feminist this week.