A few semesters ago on course evaluations, several of my writing students complained that I was “too feminist.” I’ve yet to figure out what they meant. I didn’t teach feminist tracts. I assigned writers like Wendell Berry and Ben Bagdikian. The only author who is also a woman included that semester was Annie Leonard via her video “The Story Of Stuff,” which attacks consumer culture in a gender neutral way. In class, I didn’t do feminist critiques of reading assignments or popular culture. I did, however, wear the tshirt.
I wonder how my students define feminism. By “too feminist,” did they they instead mean “too Marxist?”
I recently tried to define feminism for my daughter Maia. It came up in a book of poems. Maia loves poetry. By 1 year old, her clear favorites were William Blake’s Illuminated Manuscripts and T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats. Even now, she prefers choosing a collection from my shelves to hers – a sometimes difficult reading experience for us both.
Odgen Nash’s The Old Dog Barks Backwards was tricky. When now 4-year-old Maia asked me to explain the above illustration that accompanies “Sexual Politics Farewell,” my husband offered this definition of feminism: “some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world. A feminist wants to be the one to walk in the sun.” So we paired Ogden Nash with Cyndi Lauper.
At first, I laughed. But Maia continues to sing “I want to be the one to walk in the sun” when she thinks someone or something is unfair to girls. For now, it works.
So what, then, did my students mean by “too feminist”? Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 anthem doesn’t really help me here. I don’t think my students meant that class was “too much fun.” But when I turn to other definitions of feminism, I still can’t figure it out. Does “too feminist” mean that students felt I’d had too much access to education? Too much equal pay?
Maybe what they meant by “too feminist” was that I taught a rigorous academic course with integrity. It was a writing-intensive semester that demanded a sustained attention to critical thinking and careful discourse. I held students to high standards and I held to deadlines. I assigned grades for the work students produced rather than for how hard they claimed to have worked. Here, “too feminist” implies that my teaching wasn’t enough “fun.” Instead, I insisted on work. But I think that Cyndi Lauper would back me up here, as it’s “when the working day is done” that “girls, they want to have fun.”
Even at a university, and even at a time when women outnumber men at universities, students balk at women who they feel are not “nice” enough. And by nice, they mean willing to inflate grades. Recently, a student stopped by my office hours to quite courteously complain that while in class I seem nice, I “give” Cs and Ds. Here, “too feminist” seems to mean that I wasn’t as focused as I should have been on pleasing others.
Circumstantial definitions of feminism defy the ones I read about in books or hear about in academic circles. Which sometimes leaves me confused as to what I might do to address popular (mis)understandings of feminism.
But I also find some inspiration amongst the confusion: I think that in calling me “too feminist,” my students mean that I think independently and too much, and that I ask them to think independently and too much. So they seem to be calling me an educator. I’m ok with that.