Saturday, October 13, 2012

I'm a Feminist Again: A Micro-autobiography

Now, I'm guessing that the majority of my handful of readers have read the title up top and said, "again"?

Yes, again. I have always been a feminist, even, I think, before I knew the word, because I have a strong, successful mother and I grew up in a household with four brothers and no sisters. Us girls gotta defend ourselves. Someone--my dad?--gave me one of those little feminist quote books that you can get in the bargain section at Barnes and Noble. Maybe I bought it for myself. I had a little commonplace book that I started sophomore year that had all these feminist sayings in it. I got all mad at my family whenever they tried to tease me about PMS (which they did all the time!) I loved Gloria Steinem and Joan Didion.

But when I was in college, I sort of got over feminism. College was a magical place of surprising levels of gender equality. Maybe Title IX has something to do with that--no sarcasm, that thought really just occurred to me. In college, gender-based literary studies sort of turned me off. I did take one class that I really loved about race and class, so I started to get interested in that. My roommate all four years of college is/was queer and I want to say he was a gender studies major, but now I can't remember. He was really involved in the women's center and also the LGBT group. College was the first time I had a lot of gay friends, so I got really interested in the queer studies side of gender studies, but a lot less interested in the women's studies side.

The Quaker school was also very progressive from a gender standpoint. We had faculty members who were out, we had an active GSA, my colleague taught a gender studies senior elective, and tons of students took it. We had very few problems with body image or disordered eating, even with the boys on the wrestling team, which had the same following as a football team (since we didn't have one of those. Football is too violent for Quakers.) It's true that I sometimes butted heads with male and female students in ways that had to do with gender, but the students at that school didn't seem to "need" much education (though they always do, I now realize) in political correctness, because Quaker education is awesome like that.

Political correctness, by the way, is a sort of obnoxious but convenient name for the practice of avoiding saying things that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or disrespectful toward people with disabilities, or disrespectful, discriminatory, or stereotyping of any one group. A lot of people think political correctness is silly, but maybe they wouldn't if they had the experience I had at the beginning of this year, with my 9th grade students unwittingly whispering sexist anti-Asian racial slurs, at first as a joke, and then, after I had explained how personally offensive it was, about me directly. (This is a "teens don't know any better, and they're mean" moment.) Since everyone now reading this blog knows where my school is, I don't want to embarrass my school or my students by explaining any further, but let me just say it was shockingly ignorant. Once the Dean of Students came into my class to explain to them the seriousness of what they were doing, it was over. I'm really proud of my 9th graders for taking it seriously, and several apologized to me personally.

So anyway, back to feminism. In grad school I got really interested in reading about the history of gender and class in a class with Lauren Berlant, and I also continued to be really interested in the dynamics of gender and race and class. But making the argument "this text is misogynistic" just didn't interest me at all. So I sort of left it. I planned one dissertation chapter where I was going to talk about gender and these two awesome female playwrights (Lorraine Hansberry, who you've heard of, and Alice Childress, who, in my opinion, deserves to be even more famous). But I ended up cutting that chapter to save time. I may end up writing it some day. But it's not all that surprising, given the trend of my interests, that it was the chapter I decided to cut. Of all the texts discussed in my diss, only one is by a woman (Alice Childress's play Trouble in Mind, which has experienced a bit of a revival in the last decade, so if you ever get a chance to see it, do see it. It's a brilliant play.)

These days I find myself returning to my feminist roots, including rediscovering Didion (I mean, I've read Didion all along, but right now I'm on a Didion bender. I wish she would let me write her biography. That's never gonna happen.) The main reason, I am beginning to notice, is that my students are just dumbfoundingly ignorant about gender and race, and the whole multiculturalism revolution in general, and, sad to say, so are a lot of teachers (I've written about this before). When I was in coursework for my teaching certificate I wrote an essay about how there are literally libraries of books about "the problem with black boys" and ONE about black and brown girls.

Now, it may surprise you, since my school is about 95% Latino and about 5% African American, but my students constantly use racial slurs about each other and about their white and Asian teachers, and literally, literally sexually harass each other and their female teachers. My students say all kinds of awful things--racist, sexist, you name it. And they sometimes think awful things. And my girls have terrible body image issues. And lots of girls accidentally become mothers.

So I had one student last year who became a mom at 15, and She. Is. Awesome. She has done such an amazing job of figuring out how to give her daughter a great life and still be an honors student. I'm so proud of her and impressed by her that sometimes I wish that she could help me if I ever get pregnant--and I'm twice her age. This year, I have another student, a junior, who is due at the end of the month. She's in lots of discomfort, but she is an extraordinary young woman, because she comes to school almost every day, and she does all of her work, and she's one of the hardest working students I've ever met.

So one day I asked the one student from last year, now a junior, if we had a support group for moms at our school. Here's our conversation:
Me: Do we have a group for students who are moms?
She: No. I kind of wish we did.
Me: Yeah. Lots of other schools have one. Maybe I'll start one or try to find someone to start one.
She: That would be great. I'll help you if you want.
Me (in my head): No, you'll start it and I'll help you.

So that is exactly what's happening! I'm so excited. She's excited. Our co-sponsor is excited. The other moms and expecting moms at the school are excited. I just hope it actually gets off the ground. I asked my student--the one who will now put on her transcript that the was the founding president of this group--what we should call the group when we talk about it at school, so it sort of has a code name. She said--I'm not making this up--that it should be "something about not giving up." So we decided to wait for inspiration to hit us and let each other know when we had an idea. I asked my husband, who is a brilliant song lyricist. He said we could use FIGHT as an acronym, and then we figured out what the words would stand for. But then I said it would be better if it was a Spanish word, so then he figured out an acronym for L.U.C.H.A. Either way, I'm going to have to turn away the male students (one in particular I already have in mind) who think it's a fight club or a wrestling club. But it's gonna be great. And this is another one of those times when I'm just so full of love for my students for helping themselves, and believing in themselves, and fighting for what they deserve.