Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Ah, the F-Word...
My teaching schedule resumed yesterday with the start of the spring semester. For the past several weeks, I have spent several sleepless nights endlessly obsessing about my first week of lectures, the structure and "storyline" of my courses, etc. As the newest and youngest professor in the Women's Studies Department, my courses this term are taught from a woman-centric perspective. It's all really wonderful.
Over the years, I have deeply wrestled with and ultimately come to terms with both my identity as a woman as well as my "feminist" approach to the world. This is something that I am certain most if not all woman academics find themselves doing, especially if they are trained in a dominantly male discipline. In both cases, I have finally accepted that I am who I am. I am a feminist with a self-admitted "homecoming queen" personal approach in my public and professional affairs. As the antithesis of the stressed out, overly unkempt, and poorly socialized "stereotype" of the woman academic, I am demure, typically very nice, genuinely warm and approachable. I relate easily to both men and women, across the spectrum of generations and sexual preferences. Obviously it comes as no great secret that in my private life, I am a raging heterosexual. (I guess I'm just not that exciting or mysterious.) I believe that one can't go too far down the line of feminism without smacking head-on into a commitment to social justice and non-violence. In being who I am, I humbly acknowledge that I am standing on the shoulders of great women before me, my mother and grandmothers being among my leading roll models. However, it would be quite a serious misfortune for someone to take me as all pink frills, pom-poms, and home coming queen smiles. I am patient and very nice, but I can and will eat you for breakfast, if necessary...
Yesterday, one of my students stayed after class to share some of her thoughts with me. Always open and listening, I stood there while she told me that she was so relieved that she took my class. She said that she was worried when she enrolled in a Women's Studies class because she expected it to be full of "angry bitches" who, "like, had bad hair, like, mullets, or something". She went on to say that at first she really couldn't believe that I was actually the professor. She said:
"I mean, I looked at you and thought, No, this can't be the professor! I mean, it's not like it really matters, I guess...but you're sooooooo NICE and soooo PRETTY!...I mean, like, REALLY PRETTY...and you're such a GIRLY-GIRL...that I just didn't think that you could really be a FEMINIST..."
Because nothing really shocks me anymore, I stood there and smiled. Of course, I saw the humor (as well as the nice compliment) in what the student was saying, but I also saw the ignorance, which really bothers me the most. Obviously, this had nothing to do with my ego or my need for external validation on the basis of my outward appearance. I know that I defy the common stereotype of a feminist, and believe me, I am really ok with this. If anything, it causes me to do it even more...(Three coats of mascara...and please pass the lip gloss, if you will.)
But, of course, I didn't say any of this to my student, who is clearly very earnest and sincere in her remarks. Instead, I use it as a teaching opportunity to detangle her socially-constructed views of the f-word itself:
"Feminism is humanism. It is actively practicing the habit of treating all people with dignity and respect. If you believe, for example, that all people have the right to vote for their representatives, or live in safety in their homes and country, or have equal access to jobs and health care, for example, then you, my dear, are a feminist."
The wonderful thing is that she inspired me to open the next class with a lecture written just for her.
(And yes, I put my notes on pink paper. So there.)