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?
3 years ago