28 July 2011

On Feminism

While pursuing my bachelor of arts degree at the University of Louisville, I had occasion to take a pair of courses from the Women's & Gender Studies program.  When this arose in conversation with some of my friends--themselves fairly liberal, I might add--I was surprised to hear them marginalize the subject matter.  It wasn't "real" history, I was told.  I didn't buy that.  I subscribe to the notion that, unless the facts are outright fabricated or the interpretations are willfully selective about which facts to acknowledge, that all history is "real" history.  The issues facing women were (and are) certainly real, and given that as much as 60% or more of our population has been women at one time or another, I don't think this is some kind of trivial, niche study.
Amelia Bloomer

During my junior year, I took Women in American History (or some such title).  There were about 40 or so students in the course, and three of us were guys.  Of the others, one sat at the same table as me--all the way in the back of the class, with a female student on either side of him.  The other male student sat elsewhere and was frequently absent.  I can't speak for the other guy at my table, but I elected to sit there for one simple reason: I am lazy.  There were two doorways, one at either end of the class, and by sitting in the back, I was nearest one of the doorways.  I'm sure, however, our classmates and probably our professor surmised we were uncomfortable in the class.

Me being me, however, I quickly dispelled any notions that I was intimidated by studying women's history in a class taught by a woman and full of women students.  I threw my hand up at almost every turn, offering thoughts and asking questions whenever they occurred to me.  It was never my intention to dominate the class, but rather to participate in it.  Firstly, I sincerely enjoyed the material.  Secondly, I wanted to prove that there were (and are) male students who take women's history seriously.  It was easy for me to empathize with the Grimke sisters, Jane Adams, etc.  I found a personal favorite historical figure in Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

My classmates at first seemed a little unsure of me.  What was I even doing there? I'm sure some of them wondered.  I'm also certain that at least a few of them expected me to say offensive, dense things like, "But none of this is actually important" or "Who even cares what these chicks did?"  Eventually, I felt accepted and even respected to a point for voicing my thoughts.  Few of my classmates ever really spoke with me--which was true of every class I ever took at the college level--but I got used to hearing phrases like, "I agree with Travis" and "I think he's right" when our professor sought other opinions.

During my final semester, the end of my senior year, I took a course about women's history taught by the head of the Women's & Gender Studies department.  In that class, I took a seat in the front row all the way to the right...directly in front of the door because, as I've explained, I'm lazy.  Plus, by then I had been diagnosed with Crohn's disease and wanted to minimize any disruptions I might cause by sporadically bolting to the nearest bathroom.  On our first day of class, our professor had us introduce ourselves.  Taking note of how I was dressed, I started by saying, "I'm a guy in a class about women's history and I'm wearing a James Bond tie.  I must be the Devil."  That got a few uncomfortable chuckles, which was practically a standing ovation so far as I was concerned.  Again, I was one of just a few male students and again, I quickly won the respect of my fellow students through my frequent participation in class discussions.

Eventually, during the penultimate week of the school year, we turned in our final papers.  I wrote a paper called, "Who Wants to Be a Fashion Martyr? The Nineteenth-Century American Women's Dress Reform Movement."  My professor requested that I meet with her in her office, and that I bring with me all of my research notes.  I was concerned about the implications of such a request so I called another professor with whom I was on very good terms.  I asked him pointblank if this meant I was suspected of plagiarism and he said, "Yes."  He was furious on my behalf, knowing I would never conduct myself in such a lowly fashion.  He cautioned me that this particular professor had a certain reputation that made it very likely I was in for quite a fight.  I felt betrayed.  After four months of participating in every class discussion for which I was present (alas, Crohn's kept me out of class more than I would have liked), and after having already earned decent-to-high marks on previous smaller papers for her class, now I was in the hot seat?
Remember, this was one of the last four classes of my undergraduate studies.  We were about a week away from the commencement ceremony (which, thanks to Crohn's, I did not bother to try to attend).  Dating back to Kindergarten, I had never once been accused of something as reprehensible as plagiarism.  Oh, sure, I was lazy enough to take a seat near the doorway, but I do my own work!  A friend of mine was livid, citing this as further evidence that feminists hated men and couldn't stand to see a male student actually meet their standards.  I rejected that hyperbolic interpretation of events, and I still reject it.  Feminists care a whole lot more about being respected than they care about setting up men for failure.

The day came and I met with the professor in her office as scheduled.  I walked in, feigning ignorance of any suspicions--though I doubt she believed I was that oblivious to the implications of her request.  She asked me if I had with me my research, so I opened my attache bag and presented it.  I don't have it now, but it was a stack of printouts that stood about four or five inches tall.  When approaching any paper, I came to it the way we used to work on the Future Problem Solvers team in high school.  Which is to say, I looked for articles and papers written by experts in various fields on various subjects, and trusted that I could reasonably find a way to connect each of them.  Sometimes I would find and print an article, read it and even find relevant passages, but they would eventually be cut as I pruned my work into a solid, presentable paper.  I kept all of it anyway, even the stuff that was left on the cutting room floor.

Her eyes betrayed her surprise at the sheer volume of my research.  She thumbed through several of the printed articles, noting all the highlighting, passages circled in ink and assorted handwritten notes scrawled across the margins.  Within a minute or so, she asked if I knew why she had requested the meeting.  Sticking to my charade, I shrugged it off.  She told me as diplomatically as she could that my paper "stood out."  She was surprised to see how many different sources I had cited in a paper that only ran seven pages including cover sheet and end notes (of which there were 36).

I went with "surprised" rather than "indignant" when reacting to this.  I knew I had already acquitted myself by presenting such a substantial collection of sources.  I told her that was simply how I did things, that I liked to immerse myself as much as possible in a subject.  Very quickly the conversation evolved from a trial to one of a teacher taking time to encourage a student.  She asked my post-graduation plans.  I told her that I had been discouraged from attempting to go on to grad school and become a teacher as I had intended on account of having Crohn's disease.  She objected to that, insisting I should do it anyway but I had already accepted that even if I somehow made it through grad school without Crohn's forcing enough absences to become a problem, that eventually I would find myself in the position of having to choose whether to leave 30-plus teenage kids unsupervised for an indeterminate length of time as I made a mad dash for a bathroom.  It wasn't practical, and while I still believe I would enjoy teaching and maybe even be "adequate to good" at it, I know it's not for me.  Or, at least, that I'm not for it.

My paper earned high marks, I passed her course with an A and discovered later that I was one of but nine students in my graduating class to major in history and earn cum laude or higher honors.  (I missed magna cum laude by less than 20 percentage points, thanks to taking C's in a few economics courses.)  Along the way, I was pleased to be introduced to the stories of various American women and to better acquaint myself with the narrative of womanhood in American history.  I consider it a valuable part of my holistic appreciation of the past.  I am unwavering in my conviction that women's history is, in fact, "real" history just as I am adamant that feminists are not men-hating conspirators setting traps and making frivolous federal cases out of trivial incidents.

Women have endured being second-class citizens for centuries, and it shames us all that this is still true today.  There is a perception that any woman with an inclination to punish a man can just go around crying, "Rape!" and see him brought to his knees by the justice system, a power that all women wield at all times waiting for an excuse to exercise it.  That, of course, is nonsense.  Just look at the Dominique Strauss-Khan trial to see that society at large is still very quick to rationalize and defend untoward, disrespectful and violent behavior toward women.  Think it's easy to just cry, "Rape!" and have men imprisoned at will?  Then you've apparently never heard a defense attorney say, "She asked for it by wearing those clothes or being in that room" and seen jurors nod in agreement.
Susan B. Anthony & Elizabeth Cady Stanton
I was already sensitive to these things prior to my studies; I was not "brainwashed."  After spending four years pushed and tested to hone my critical thinking skills, I am particularly resentful of anyone accusing my collegiate career of having been a brainwashing operation.  That is a baseless charge levied by ignorant, small-minded people who have no valid counterargument to the educated. We are not elitists.  Our opinions are, however, generally better informed and our arguments more sound.  For more on this, read "On Education."

I was formally educated in specific stories of various women who found the courage and conviction to challenge a system that linked their legal rights to their uterus.  I challenge anyone who remains skeptical of women's history being "real" history or believes that feminism is some kind of cabal of women determined to enslave anyone with the wrong chromosomes to actually study women's history.  Any reasonable person should very quickly empathize with their plight, and rejoice at reading of their triumphs.  You can start anywhere, but between you and me, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is well worth your time.  It would not surprise me at all to one day learn that she was part of the template for The Golden Girls.

"On Sexual Violence" may also interest readers of this post.