This Is What A Feminist Looks Like

IMG_5945It’s back to school for me, too, so I’m wearing my “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt.

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.Ogden Nash on feminism

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.

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12 thoughts on “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like

  1. If you are feminist enough to even own a “This is what a Feminist Looks like” shirt, you are feminist enough for it to unintentionally bleed into other areas, like teaching. You clearly confuse the wage gap that is “Unequal pay for unequal work” for the mythological “Unequal pay for equal work” I rather expect that you said many other feminist things in class that people are now starting to see as wrong. “End Violence against WOMEN”(but not men). “Rape Culture” “Teach men not to rape”. How many times did you accuse a student of “Privileged” because penis? Even though in a classroom setting, as the teacher you are the one with power and privilege.

    • lol I appreciate your engagement but these aren’t the kinds of conversations that come up in the level of writing classes that I teach. We’re more about learning to recognize arguable theses and bolster those arguments with evidence. We tend to talk about commas more than, um, rape.

      In my post, I mention Wendell Berry, whose “Why I Will Not Buy A Computer” encourages students’ confidence because he’s accessible and easy to argue with. While the kind of keywords you drop here – popular verbage in postcolonialism and identity politics over the last few decades – like “privilege” and “raceclassandgender” might be useful in other teaching situations, they don’t really surface in this particular course.

      Here, I think you’re reacted like my students: you saw the word feminist. Thanks for helping me understand.

      • Given these reactions to the word feminist, why do you still associate with the label? Gender equality is a good thing, and an important thing. There are labels like humanitarian or egalitarian that support gender equality and won’t get this type of reaction. What makes the label feminist so much better than egalitarian that your willing to grant tacit support to the bigots that also use the label.

      • I wear the tshirt because I am a feminist.

        I’d reply to your other comments here but I’m not sure I understand them.

        More important than my tshirt or any label that we choose, for that matter, are the kinds of conversations that they encourage. Thanks for joining in!

      • LOL I comment to start conversations. It is through discourse not dictation that we can understand other people. This is a good conversation. You show no signs of becoming shrill, and sadly that is what I’ve come to expect.

        I would like to know why you are a Feminist. The label feminist gets a strong negative reaction from many people. If you want gender equality, you can label yourself egalitarian or humanitarian and not need to over come the reaction to the label. This would let you deal with the content, not the packaging. What about the packaging, the label “Feminist” makes it more important than the message?

      • I’m a feminist because, perhaps not unlike you, I hope for gender equality. But “equality” isn’t as charged as “feminism,” so perhaps not as striking. And if I wear a shirt that says “humanitarian,” people might wonder how wealthy I am and which organizations I’ve founded or funded. That’s a tshirt for Warren Buffet or Mother Teresa. I’m neither.

        Labels – mine and yours – are problematic. Therein lies their conversational power. My feminist tshirt helps me “deal with the content,” as evidenced in our exchange and the many others I engage in when I wear the shirt.

        I also wear the tshirt to challenge a popular stereotype. Like you write, you suspected me to be “shrill.”

        I’m a feminist because we still need feminism. Like all movements, it should self-destruct when it succeeds. But we’re not quite there yet. University students recently captured this impressively:

        http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/06/20/why-cambridge-needs-feminism_n_3471562.html

        What I’d really like to wear after hearing an NPR article on the teachers’ strike in Mexico is a “Sector 22” shirt!

      • “it should self-destruct when it succeeds.”

        Should, but hasn’t. It just keeps morphing to fight a nebulous at best, fictional at worst entity called “The Patriarchy”.

        The women’s suffrage movement ended with the right to vote. The civil rights movement ended with an amendment for equal rights. What would be needed for “Feminism” to end. Schools 75% women 90%, 100%(already at 60%, so “equality”is out). Fathers fully excluded from any contact with their children?(less than 10% of fathers get custody so “Equality” is out) Women making 20% more than men 30% 100%?(Equally qualified women are already making 8% more so “equality” is out) The goals of feminism, equality, was achieved 20 years ago or more. But it didn’t die, it keeps fighting for benefits for women that no longer even resemble equality.

        This is my first comment here on the content and not the packaging, so the packaging is a big issue.

  2. Pingback: Here I Go Again With The Sentiment (This Time, A Tribute To Students) | love and biscuits blog

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