Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Feminism: Could It Be Any More Difficult?

After reading ld's great post on her female students' response to identifying themselves as feminists; this post at Tenured Radical, which discusses the teaching of second-wave feminism; and the comment that follows the post, which quotes Gloria Steinem, I'm left frustrated at the explicit notion that graduate school somehow "brainwashes" female graduate students, who then go on to face undergraduates that have no ability (possibly no need) to be familiar with a very basic history of feminism (i.e. that feminism doesn't equal man-hating lesbians).

The quote offered by lesboprof (keep in mind it's not direct) was that she believed someone told her in grad school that "[Gloria] Steinem said it took women 3-5 years to recover from every year they spent in grad school."

My problems with this idea begin with the premises on which it appears to be based. The idea implies:

1) that women are "brainwashed" by feminist ideology throughout graduate school. As if we get to graduate school only to have our professors reveal that we've been oppressed all our lives and we must immediately join The Fight Against the Patriarchy;

2) that female graduate students then believe everything they are taught about feminism in graduate school. Yep, we eat it all up...hook, line, and sinker, cause you know, we can't think for ourselves yet, right?

3) that we then graduate, only to spend the next 15-25 years "recovering" from this brainwashing, implicitly discovering some other sort of reality or truth...I'm still not sure how this works.

Did I miss something here? First, yes, I knew very little about the history of feminism before starting graduate school, but I also knew very little about the history of ANY school of ideology or literary criticism. Learning more about the history of important schools of literary and linguistic thought is, as I understand it, one of the benefits/expectations of graduate school, as it prepares one for a career as a academic in literary studies.

Second, if I'm smart enough to understand Derrida, Lacan, Butler, and all the other theorists that I had to read throughout coursework, then it's pretty likely I've got the intellectual hardware to be critical of those writers and thinkers, as well as critical of the choices of specific texts in any given course. Never did I have a professor claim that one theory, ideology, literary school of thought, etc. was The One True Way that I must follow. No professor told me I'd been oppressed, limited, screwed over, sheltered (although that was actually the case), or unenlightened. What my professors did was expose me to texts that made me think critically about the values, beliefs, and systems of thought I'd previously understood as natural, right, common, true, etc. I asked questions I'd never asked. Good questions! Really fucking hard questions. Painful questions. Questions that definitely changed the way I see the world around me on a daily basis. I also had the freedom and encouragement to challenge the texts I read, the professors who assigned them, and those scholars and students who've responded to both. To imply that I suffered in a way that requires "recovery" is, to me, ridiculous, especially framed in terms of what academics "do" with feminism.

Finally, using the term "recover" implies some sort of healing, as if I've suffered a wound or an illness. Yes, many times graduate school makes me sick, but not in that way. When I finish next year, am I going to "see the light" or unlearn everything that my feminist professors have taught me (or more accurately, what they've let me learn)? What does this "recovery" mean?

I'm hoping people will visit and read this posts and join this query, because I'm really a bit befuddled. Feminism in the academy doesn't inherently equal evil, tragedy, brainwashing, or political manhandling, as many would like to argue. Learning is often about what each student makes of it, so the range of experiences is infinite. What, then, are we (by we I mean those who identify themselves as feminists or make use of feminist literary theory and practice) to make of these various posts?


Lisa Dunick said...

ooooh- so it's brainwashing that causes me to be so upset about the state of things. I see. Maybe by the time I'm 50 or 60 I'll be over it. Oh wait, by then I'll be on my way to retirement or retired and won't need to worry about pesky things like a career or a salary-- oh, and I'll definitely have had "the change," so no more worries about what having babies will do to my career or salary. I feel better already.

p-duck said...

I had 3 women's studies classes in undergrad that did cause me to rethink much of what I had been taught before. I know it took me a while to process much of what I learned in those classes, but I did process it on my own terms; I was not brainwashed in any way. In fact, the professor that taught at the Eastern school I attended, now teaches at my univeresity. I keep wanting to drop her a line and say 'thank you'!
I wish I had a more thoughtful response... but I'm tired...