On 6 March I participated in a panel presentation/discussion at my alma mater Hope College in celebration of twenty-plus years of women’s studies at the institution (the interdisciplinary minor was formally established in 1992; students had been forming “contract” majors and minors since the early 1980s).
I’m really hoping the college will make the panel discussion available via web video so I can share it with all of you, since the other panelists all had fascinating stories about their coming to feminism and its integration into their personal and professional lives. The questions from the audience were engaged and the panelists answers were diverse and thoughtful. I was honored to be a part of the evening.
At the beginning of the session, each panelist was asked to speak for about ten minutes on the topic “how women’s studies mattered in my life.” Here’s what I had to say.
Tonight, I’d like to share some thoughts about three aspects of my life as a feminist, and how feminism and women’s studies have affected my life. The first is how feminist ideas and politics have brought to my personal relationships, the second is how I incorporate feminist thought and practice in my intellectual and professional life, and third, some thoughts about how I’ve grown as a feminist since graduation.
I’m sure most of the people in this room have a story to tell about their coming to feminist ideas and a sense of how those ideas could help them make sense of their own lives and the world around them. In my family growing up, feminist understandings of gender equality and individual self-determination were more or less taken for granted, and I felt an affinity with feminist activists in history for as long as I can remember. My sense of contemporary, feminist political awareness — the realization that there is still feminist work to be done — came gradually as I struggled during my childhood and adolescence against prejudiced notions of what children and young people are capable of. As I grew from being understood primarily as a child to being understood as a young woman, rigid conceptions of sex, sexuality, and gender came to the fore — particularly in peer relationships and in church. I had support in my immediate family to push back against restrictive notions of gender and sexuality — but it was feminism as a philosophical framework and as a community of practice that gave me the support outside my family to articulate and honor my own experiences and desires.
Since my teens, feminism (conceptually) and feminist spaces (materially) have been a space for me to break open ‘common sense’ definitions of love, relationships, human sexuality, and community. Feminism has connected me to global, trans-historical network of people who work not to pass judgment on relationship diversity. We’re all imperfect at this, it’s true, but at least within feminist spaces there is usually a common ground to talk about how monogamy and non-monogamy, parenting and not-parenting, queer and straight relationships, long-term and more casual sexual relationships, can all be ethical, meaningful, and healthy.
Feminist spaces encouraged me to ask “does it have to be this way?” over and over and over again. Even when I didn’t think I had the right to identify as queer (more on that in a minute), my ties to feminist and queer thinkers and activists became a way for me to explore the possibility of sexual intimacy and family formation in ways that didn’t make me feel claustrophobic or filled with rage. That instead filled me with hope and desire, with expansive generosity, with the sense that there was enough creativity in the world to ensure that everyone’s relational needs could be met — and exceeded.
Feminism encourages me to take ownership of my sexuality and learn how to take pleasure in my body in a culture that is hostile to our embodiment. Being a self-identified feminist is obviously not an instant cure for body insecurity, for fear of being the wrong size, the wrong shape, the wrong kind of beautiful. But in my experience, a feminist analysis of our culture’s narrow expectations of beauty, sexuality, and health give me an edge in asserting my right to be at home in my physical self. My knowledge and confidence about my body, and the pleasure I can experience as an embodied person, has been hard-won in a lot of ways. And wouldn’t have been as possible, or as rich a journey, without feminism in my life.
My feminism, at Hope College, wove back and forth across the boundaries of personal and academic life. On the one hand, feminist analysis was a way for me to understand the political upheaval around religion and sexuality I experienced here at Hope (in the late 90s). I was politically queer long before I was sexually active, in a same-sex relationship, or had to grapple with how to label myself in a world that demands sexual identification. By the time I entered into my first relationship — with a lover who happened to be a woman — I had a rich history of engagement with feminist and queer literature, political activism, and support networks to draw upon. That history made transition from thinking of myself as “mostly straight” to thinking of myself as someone who was in a lesbian relationship remarkably easy. And I owe the Women’s Studies program at Hope for at least some of that.
In an academic and professional sense, the exploration of gender and sexuality in historical context is at the heart of what I do as an historian. The Women’s Studies program here at Hope was my entre into thinking about women’s human rights as they are connected to broader socio-political struggles against racism, homophobia, economic inequality. Academic feminism is often criticized for being abstract, privileged, and out of touch with the urgent political engagement needed in “real” peoples lives. And I think that’s a critique worth listening to (if you haven’t already, check out the anthology Feminism For Real edited by Jessica Yee). But in my life, college classrooms became one of the places where I wrestled with notions of privilege and with the complicated histories of oppression. And in part because of that, my scholarship will never be entirely divorced from my political or personal selves.
It was through the Women’s Studies program that I became involved in my first full-scale oral history research project, published and presented original research, and began my research on the history of mid-twentieth-century countercultures — an interest I carried with me into graduate school an pursued for my Master’s thesis. While my work as a reference librarian isn’t explicitly related to feminism, gender and sexuality, or social justice issues, I went into library science because I see facilitating equitable access to information as a feminist activity. I get asked a lot whether my “dream job” would be to work at a library with collections more in my field of interest — but I actually prefer (perhaps because of my experience as a liberal growing up in West Michigan?) to work in spaces where feminist-oriented research remains, to some extent, counter-cultural, an exercise in reading against the grain of our collection strengths and thinking about how to come at things slant-wise. To find evidence of gender and the erotic in unexpected places. My years at Hope College taught me that radical ideas and non-normative experiences can be found virtually everywhere.
Political activism in the classic sense isn’t my day job — and that’s okay with me. Post college, the space for feminist thought, discussion, and networking that’s worked best for me has been the virtual world of Internet. Blogging provides me a way to interact with others over issues of gender, sexuality, and social justice in a way that help me avoid burn-out. If I’m having a shitty week, or I’m busy at work, or I can feel myself getting wound up over a really emotionally-fraught issue, I can walk away and engage in self-care — calm down, re-group, and re-engage. On my own blog, I write as much as I want about the issues I’m passionate about, and no one can dismiss me in conversation or bully me into silence by saying “oh, don’t take it so seriously!” or “you think too much.” I’m sure there are people out there who believe I do take things “too seriously” or think “too much.” But I don’t have to allow them to comment on my blog, and regardless of how loud they shout online, they don’t control my online space — I do.
Blogging has also put me in the way of opportunities to participate in feminist scholarship and activism — I’ve done author interviews, attended conferences, been a research participant for a number of studies on human sexuality — one on religion and use of sexually-explicit materials among women, one on the personal experiences of queer individuals interacting with straight folks and mainstream culture. In 2009 I had the awesome experience of participating in the revision of the relationships chapter of the latest edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves.
Women’s Studies and feminism was a generally positive, inclusive space for me while I was at Hope. Since graduating, I’ve met a lot of folks for whom feminism and Women’s or Gender Studies programs were not welcoming. People who experienced feminist spaces as exclusionary because of their gender identity, their sexuality, their family lives, their concerns about race or class inequalities, their physical or mental health concerns … I’m sure some of you could add to this litany. My partner was told she couldn’t be a feminist because she liked the Terminator movies, and that she was a bad lesbian ‘cause her best friend was a guy. I believe those people were wrong, but that doesn’t erase the fact that the language of feminism was used, in those instances, as the language of exclusion.
This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped identifying myself as a feminist. In fact, it’s made me more vocal about what I believe feminism is and can be. It’s made me more likely to speak up when I hear people using feminism as a tool to create and enforce us/them, insider/outsider hierarchies. At the same time, over the last ten years, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that feminism, for some people, will never signify intellectual and emotional support for their being in the world the way it does for me. And that that’s okay. I believe feminism is — at its best — for everybody. But I also believe there are many pathways to a more loving, equitable world. As long as I see folks living out the values I name as “feminist” then I’m happy to count them as allies and co-conspirators.
Cross-posted at The Pursuit of Harpyness.