Monday, November 06, 2006

I'm Not a Feminist, But....

One of my upper-division students came to me with an idea for her research paper, and she presented the idea with the caveat: "I don't want the paper to be overly feminist... it's so cliche."

Now, of course, I busted out with the "I'm not sure what 'overly feminist' really means" and feminist critique of literature is not a "cliche," but the fact of the matter is that my students really do resist the label "feminist" - don't want to do "feminist" work, don't want to be called "feminists" - and I'm wondering whether this doesn't have something to do with the dominant feminism or feminisms that they encounter.

That's right - dominant feminism(s), which might sound like an oxymoron. Isn't it true that feminism is about dismantling hierarchies and structures of oppression? Isn't it true that feminism is "the radical notion that women are people"? Isn't feminism the antithesis of domination?

Except, for many of my students, that isn't what feminism is. Feminism is something that tells them that their religious beliefs are wrong. Feminism is something that tells them that their mothers and grandmothers and maybe even they themselves are oppressed. Feminism is something that tells them that sexism is everywhere and that they should be suspicious of men. Feminism is something that insists on righteous anger and indignation on the part of women.

Now, when I was a student, I think that I embraced a lot of these things about Feminism (capital-F) because I wanted desperately to rebel and I was intrigued by the idea fighting for my liberation. I liked accusing my mother of being complicit in her oppression and accusing my father of misogyny. It was my thing. Kind of like how it was my thing when I was in high school to correct my parents' grammar. See, for me embracing Feminism (capital-F) was as much about rejecting my working-class roots as anything else. And so, at least to start, I embraced a very upper-middle-class version of feminism.

But as I became freakishly over-educated, and as I saw a bit more of the world, I realized that the upper-middle-class feminism of my peers would never really be my own. For one thing, the whole notion of "choosing" not to work just does not compute for me. The only people in my family who "choose" not to work are on welfare. Both of my grandmothers worked, and my mother has always worked. In other words, "working" is not a "choice' or something one does "for the experience" (as one of my friends' mothers said to my mother when my friend and I were in high school - my mother replied, "Oh, Crazy won't work for the experience, she'll work for the money"). And I have trouble bemoaning the way that I'm compensated in this feminized field of mine, blaming the patriarchy for my salary or for the kind of benefits I receive or whatever, because the reality is that I make more money than most of the people I know, and so I feel kind of rich, comparatively. And finally, I guess I have trouble with some versions of Feminism (capital-F) because they leave out so many women's experiences, and it makes so many women feel judged because they don't conform to certain "feminist" ideals.

And, in fact, it's all of that stuff (I think) that can make some students respond to feminism as if it's played out, a cliche, something that is just totally uninteresting or not for them. I think for many of my students feminism is reserved for privileged yuppies who don't have better things to do with their time, and it's - maybe more than anything else - boring and silly, a waste of time. I'm not saying that these students are right - I don't think that they are - but I do think that this view of things comes from somewhere, and I don't think the only place it comes from is "patriarchy."

So the question is this: to what extent is it my responsibility to show them different versions of feminism? To what extent must feminism to reconcile itself to different kinds of belief systems (conservative religious or political beliefs, for example) in order not to exclude whole groups of women from a feminist agenda? To what extent is it the role of feminist professors, who probably have the most contact with not-yet-feminist women, to show them that feminism is, in fact, "for" them, even if those women have a lot of voices in their lives that contradict dominant feminisms with which they are familiar?


Flavia said...

I have this problem, too: although I do have some students, even some freshmen, who strongly identify as feminists (perhaps because they've taken a Women's Studies class early on, or perhaps because they come from well-educated, liberal households and grew up knewing the term), for many of them the term is as alien/outdated as calling themselves Communists would be.

One thing that I hope has helped my freshman: so far this semester we've read essays by Camille Paglia, Naomi Wolf, Andrea Dworkin, and Nadine Strossen--as well as by a couple of lesser-known lefty Pro-Lifers--in my composition class. All of them assert, in one way or another, that they're feminists, even while they critique other feminists for betraying the movement's values.

Now, this class isn't about gender per se (I call it "Sex, Politics, and Religion"), much less feminism, but when the F-word comes up I've made a point of getting my students to tease out what it apparently means to each writer, and what seems to be at stake for her in the lable. I've pointed out the ways in which each writer tries to appropriate it for her own purposes, and I've emphasized that there are Christian feminists and Republican feminists, as well as secular and liberal ones. (I do the same thing with religion--simply "being Christian" doesn't say jack shit about one's politics, after all--and about party affiliation.)

I don't actually have any evidence that this has done any good, but if it's created some space for one of my more conservative students to think that she might be able to call herself a feminist--or just not to have a knee-jerk, negative reaction toward the term--I think it will have been worthwhile.

LibraryTavern Liz said...

Interesting post, especially for me right now because I only somewhat recently have become certain that I identify as a feminist, and I am fully aware that I am now a feminist because for the first time in my life I have the privilege (status, income, et cetera) that allows me to be one.

Anonymous said...

about your question, i think it is the responsibility of all women, especially feminist, to a certain extent to enlighten younger women in this respect. I think all people should be feminists, how nice that would be.

i think you're right on about "dominant" feminism, and that many times feminism is something only those with a certain amount of privilege can identify with, but there are lots of feminisms, like feminism that takes into consideration, heck even privileges women of color.

At the same time, when i first read the student's statement to you, what automatically came into my mind as the reason for it was because feminists are thought to be man-haters, and women who want to rule the world. so many times people have said in classes that "I'm not a feminist but,..." and then said something feminist. Feminist has become a bad word no one wants to be associated with, because a lot of the time, those things you said were feminism, like women treated as people, you can get a student to say that. But identifying as a feminist seems to many I've encountered as a thing those women in the 70s did and its over now. They are "radical" and hate men and are not reasonable. Sadly, the definition of feminist has been appropriated by the wrong people. And in in that I also include feminists who say only "dominant feminism" is important and do not take into consideration the needs of women who are not wealthy and white.

Anonymous said...

what I like about this post is that rather than just presuming that the something wrong here has to do with feminism becoming a bad word, you're acknowledging that there are legitimate feminisms that just are working with the experiences these women bring to the discussion. I think showing them that feminism *is* for them is at least a good thing if not your responsibility as a feminist, not just as a professor.

Anonymous said...

aren't working. sorry.

prefer not to say said...

I teach a very different, very privilged student population whose reluctance to embrace feminism is not about a savvy class politics (I'm cheering wildly with your critique of "choosing to stay at home") but rather a deep terror of Not Being Nice.

Feminists (as my students understand the category) don't smile, scorn perfectly decent cute skirts and sweaters, won't wear make-up just to be contrary and prove some abstract point that we've already heard, constantly bring up how men have it better, and in general just make it hard to relax and have fun. Feminists are out for a fight.

Of course, this is also why my students don't like fundamentalists, liberals, conservatives, anyone too religious or too atheistic, anyone who mentions class at all. Or environmentaliststs.

So if you have a group of students whose reluctance to identify as feminists has to do with an actual understanding of the vexed class content of feminism -- I say, hooray! Work with that!

From my deeply cynical standpoint, however, I see students rejecting feminism because it just doesn't fit into the etiquette of nonconfrontation which is their only morality.

Unsane said...

Hmm. It is indeed strange to talk in terms of one's "responsibility" with regard to the feminist project. Very strange. Does that way of constructing the world (in terms of responsiblity or not being liable) make you bourgeois?

Dr. Crazy said...

Well, I'm sure I am bourgeois. I'm not sure it's possible to be an academic and not be bourgeois, but even if it is, I'd never claim that I've resisted becoming bourgeois in any conscious way.

As for thinking about this in terms of responsibility, I think that has to do with the fact that I'm thinking about my role as a feminist teacher/professor. In the classroom, I do have certain responsibilities to students, and I would suggest that if I'm serious about teaching about issues related to gender and sexuality that this (at least for me) includes a certain level of responsibility for communicating different perspectives about those things, which include feminist perspectives. I'm not sure that this is the role of every woman who'd consider herself a feminist, but I think it is a part of what it means to be an educator who is a feminist.

kfluff said...

I think it's definitely worthwhile to think about why students are unwilling to ally themselves with a feminist position; this gives them far more credit than a lot of us have been given in the second wave/third wave split.

To take up your question, I've been thinking lately that it's my responsibility to show students different ways of being a woman (not necessarily different ways of being a feminist): academic, professional, single, married, a rodeo clown in my spare time... I often feel like they need to see a multitude of ways of being in the world--and that they're offered very few. I'd tentatively call this a feminist project.

Bardiac said...

Such an important and difficult question. I think you're right that as educators we have responsibilities. And as feminists, we have responsibilities.

But it's hard to reconcile my feminism with some of my students' attitudes, to try to introduce them to ideas about feminism as a positive movement for women AND men.

Anonymous said...

I want to second what Bardiac has just said. Talking about feminism and its upside for men may in some ways re-center masculinity in ways that some feminisms may not conscience. But rhetorically (and as a man) I have found that talking about what feminism means and has meant for men (gay and straight) is sometimes effective. It also lets me harp on one of my big concerns, which is that feminism has made some great progress in teaching women how to empower themselves, but that the idea that it's ok for men to choose less-powerful roles is ok, too.

Jenny said...

This is one of the issues that we've wrestled with at the All Girl Army, a site that a few colleagues/friends of mine started for feminists under the age of 23. For students who might be interested in feminism, but aren't sure what it's about or if there's room for diversity, I think there's a heck of a lot of it on our boards and in blogs. Send 'em our way :).