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.