Address to our 2012 Gender and Women’s Studies Graduates
This past Saturday we held our Iota, Iota, Iota National Women’s Studies Honor Society Induction and 2012 Graduation and Awards Ceremony. This even is always my favorite of the year, as we honor our graduates and their accomplishments. This year I had the honor of giving our annual address, which I have included below.
On the Courage of a Feminist Future
Hello. It is a pleasure to be here today, celebrating with you all. I would like to congratulate our Triota inductees and our graduates, as well as the friends and family who have joined us today, because without your love and support, our students would not be here celebrating these wonderful accomplishments. At this time, I think it is also important to once again acknowledge this marvelous group of students, because without them, the Gender and Women’s Studies Program would not be what it is today.
The graduates of the class of 2012 have been a part of some very exiting changes for our program. We’ve successfully completed assessments that have streamlined and strengthened our curriculum, our number of majors has nearly quadrupled in the past five years, and we successfully petitioned to have our name officially changed to the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies. This name change represents the program’s emphasis of how the social construction of gender and the relations of women and men structure our politics, culture, and everyday lives. Our new name also better reflects the achievements of the women’s movement and the ways that Women’s Studies has, and continues to, address issues of ethnicity, race, class, and sexuality, along with the fight for social justice and equality.
Change, as I am sure you are all poignantly aware of today, is not always easy, and therefore it is not surprising that this move was met with some resistance. By exposing the changing dynamics of the field of Women’s Studies, both faculty and students alike were forced to consider how the politics of a seemingly benign issue such as a name change might mask deeper concerns that this institution (and others) may not want to face, raise provocations that challenge some too deeply, and mirror larger social systems that perpetuate a status quo of inequality on both the macro and micro levels.
When Jody approached me about speaking to you all today, I believe it was with these concerns in mind that she asked that I talk about what might “surprise” you as you go out in the world, or what “challenges” you might face—but I’m not going to do that. I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t predict the future, and besides, it is both the fear and beauty of the unexpected that motivates us to do and be our best.
Instead, I want to speak to you today about courage. Not because I am an expert on the subject—far from it—but because it is the one thing I know for sure that you will need to possess as you set forth to claim your futures. Fortunately, I believe this is something all of you know a little bit about. Courage, not unlike the activism we teach in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program, need not be revolutionary. It starts small. The seeds were planted the day you signed up for your first Gender and Women’s Studies course. It began to sprout when you started to talk to your friends and family about things like intersectionality, privilege, and equality. Your courage grew the day you declared Gender and Women’s Studies as your major, despite what others may have advised you to do, what your friends thought, or the secret stigma that you may have felt inside. And, most importantly, your courage came in to bloom the day you first called yourself a feminist.
Yes, I said it, the “F” word. This past week I sat in a meeting where some suggested we step back from the word feminism. Apparently, it doesn’t speak to your generation. It’s too outdated, too old, too political, or so the argument goes. But I do not believe any of these descriptions to be true. I think that men, but even more so women, particularly those who are your age, avoid the word feminism out of fear. Saying you are a feminist is an acknowledgement of the fact that just one year after graduation female graduates will earn only 80% of what their male counterpoints make; it’s an awareness that our Senate almost did not reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, despite the fact that each year battery continues to be the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States; and its knowing that being the victim of domestic violence, along with other “pre-existing conditions” such as having a Caesarean Section, or hell, even having a vagina, raises a person’s insurance premiums and can even disqualify her from receiving medical coverage.
As the late Adrienne Rich wisely stated, “It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness,” but “it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful.” Each semester I witness within students an awakening into a feminist consciousness that quite often mimics Rich’s reflection. Students believe in equal rights and they believe in social justice, but they don’t believe themselves to be feminists because doing so means they must also believe that they live in a world that I just described to you, one where not all men—and certainly not women—are created equal.
And, yet, into this world you must go. This, then, is where your education, and your courage, will come in handy. What you have learned these past four or more years should not be the answer to what you should do or who you should be, but the question of how you might live and who you may become. Your courage is your hope that change is possible, the remembrance that much has been accomplished, and your conviction that equality is a right for all, and not just a privilege for the few.
Gender and Women’s Studies encouraged you to claim your education by stressing that you take an active part in your learning experience through the intersections of scholarship, activism, and teaching. As you move on to the next stages in your life, it is imperative that you continue to recognize the relationship between knowledge and power and continue to ask questions and seek information that will allow you to make the most informed choices for your own lives.
Far too often the personal is removed from the classroom and the learning experience, resulting in complacency and detachment on the part of both student and teacher. This leads to a general apathy that encourages us all to remain content with the status quo. Change, however, is possible. For this to happen, though, you must continue to work combating outdated stereotypes and methods not just to define a feminist space within the university setting, but in your own lives upon your graduation. It is in this way that Gender and Women’s Studies is not only relevant to you today, but imperative to your personal growth and futures.
So, as you embark on your journeys, I offer you the following advice:
Ask for directions, but always be your own GPS. The quickest route isn’t necessarily the best, and only you can decide which path your future should take.
Spend less time on Facebook and more time with a your face in a book. You may be done with school, but your actual learning has only just begun.
With that in mind, don’t forget the power of actual face-to-face interaction. Seek out mentors and become a mentor to someone else. These relationships will be some of the most transformative and important ones in your life. Feminism is about cooperation, not competition, which is why Adrienne Rich cautioned that “The connections between and among women are [some of] the most feared, the most problematic, and the most potentially transforming force on the planet.”
Your future is up to you. Only time will reveal the challenges you will face and the surprises that may be in store. However, if you keep your minds sharp, your hearts soft, and your voices loud, the strength that you each possess today will become the courage of a greater tomorrow.