OPEN UNIVERSITY JULY 9, 2007
by Linda Hirshman, Courtney Martin, and Deborah Siegel
Last week I went to the Twenty Sixth Annual Women's Studies Association Convention. It was my first such meeting since some law professor thing I attended in 1987, where the food was all vegetarian and there were no hangers in the dorm room closet. "Never again," I muttered, driving away in my (liberal) limousine. But here I am, with Get to Work out in paperback and dying to convince the women's studies teachers to teach its eponymous message to their young students. Before, as the new jacket copy says, it's too late.
I approached the registration desk.
The young woman looks at me. "Omigod. I am reading your book right now." Good start.
Because this is a women's studies conference and not some media event, I had proposed to speak about the failure of "choice" feminism, my locution for the movement that says any decision a woman makes is automatically a feminist choice. I expected a fair amount of flak, because the judgmental part of my writing hasn't exactly been an overwhelming success amongst my more liberal colleagues.
Instead, as I spoke to a mixture of women my age (63) and women half my age, like the other bloggers in this post, the response was amazingly positive. My Sixties colleagues nodded vigorously when I reminded us of the judgmental origins of modern feminism in The Feminine Mystique and the like. They remembered that "choice" was actually a way to try to get the Catholic Church to moderate its opposition to abortion in 1972 ("Catholics for a Free Choice"). How optimistic we had been.
But the best part was that it was the young attendees who peppered me with questions, not about how I could be so judgmental, but about how you teach judgments. They were already using my book in their classes. How do you teach a substantive message to young women--or even young girls, they wanted to know. Especially when all the social messages were pushing them the other way. It is hard on this old feminist to think that, despite the clear sense that we graying ladies had participated in something heroic, so many of the issues remain unchanged. Still and all, here was a room full of energetic and eager young feminists to take it forward, that they would ask us to tell them what we knew, but then that we could let them go ... girl.
So here they are:
Courtney E. Martin:
My first National Women's Studies Association meeting, in some ways, was predictable--the discussion of bisexuality over dinner, the whooping at a tribute evening to This Bridge Called My Back, the Birkenstocks, the ass-kicking boots.
But I was also surprised. Older feminists seemed hungry for the messages that Jessica and I were dishing out--namely that feminism is still alive and well, often online. We advocated a new way to reach the "I'm not a feminist but--" crowd--a pedagogy (that was for the academics squirming in their seats when Jess (Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism, dropped the f-bomb) of authenticity and inclusion.
Authenticity is the new genius. Blame it on Oprah. Young people filling college classrooms want a very personal, very real connection with their professors.
But the point about inclusion is a bit more complex, messier, fraught at the intersection of judgment and empathy.
I agree that judgment is essential, that there are more and less ethical choices. I worry that my generation has been raised on a hazardously judgment-free diet of, as Linda says, "whatever floats your boat."
But I also believe that if women are ever going to be convinced to make better choices, they aren't going to do it because they feel judged. They are going to do it because they feel inspired, outraged in solidarity, truly seen.
So when Linda says "Work, damn it!" or Ariel Levy says "Stop flashing your tits!" I agree, but I also feel like they've forgotten how motivation works. "Self-actualization" is at the top of Maslow's pyramid for a reason--it is damn hard. First women must feel physically satiated, safe, socially-connected, and self-confident.
I want women, the young ones especially, to feel like women's studies, and more broadly, feminism, is a home for them. A home where they cannot expect to escape judgment, but they can expect to be approached as human beings with complex inner lives, women with both intellectual and emotional motivations, women--as we all are--in the process of becoming.
Courtney Martin is the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.
At 38, I'm of the bridge generation: mesmerized by the rockstar bloggers in jeans and flip flops who bedazzled a room of older professors with invectives on how to reach younger women, inspired by the graying ladies in skirts and sandals to whom we owe our due. I was thrilled at how NWSA has renewed. They've piloted their first online faculty development course, become more diverse, deepened the rigor of their annual conference. The field has professionalized. No dorm rooms without coat hangers. The convention was at a golf resort.
We ate the meat.
A Ph.D. with a career that's veered so far off the academic course I've forgotten how to speak Foucault, I came to get reacquainted--to cavort with colleagues, now-mid-career academics who had theorized with me back in the '90s the beginnings of feminism's so-called third wave, to talk about Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to grrls Gone Wild, to help scholars cross that ever-stubborn academic/public divide with a workshop on writing books for "trade," and to learn how debates plaguing popular feminism are playing across women's studies. Debates are rampant among sisters of academe, but the tenor is vastly improved.
The hot-button issues are stuff of headlines: "Women's Studies Profs Don't Get The Girls Who Take Their Courses and Still Opt Out or Go Wild." But the tone was rich and civil, unlike on blogs and listservs, where we (mea culpa) talk across and at and rarely have opportunities to talk with or to. In real space, there's potential for breakthrough. I was the one who asked Linda during her session what she had learned and whether anything productive had come out of the controversy she created with her recent fiery polemic. "I've met young feminists," she said. "And I've asked them to lunch."
The NWSA conference gives me hope that sisterhood freshly engaged can trump sisterhood long interrupted. Now, if only the scholars can learn to say it all in a way that more readily gets through!
Deborah Siegel is the author of Sisterhood Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild.