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.
On Friday, March 30, students from WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action, along with URI students from the Program in Gender and Women’s Studies and the Political Science Department, attended the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study’s “Women Making Democracy” conference. Each year the Institute organizes a conference that highlights the significance of gender in relation to the human experience. This year’s theme brought together a selection of preeminent journalists, scholars, and activists to discuss the role of women and gender in movements for social justice and political change. Much of the discussion centered on the role of women in the “Arab Spring,” but there were also comparative perspectives that opened the dialogue to include democratic movements in Eastern Europe and South Africa. The mix of speakers and topics created a space for interdisciplinary conversations that not only informed, but also raised new questions while challenging previous assumptions regarding gender and political unrest.
While the scope and depth of the information presented at the conference could be the springboard to a multitude of important discussions, I will limit my thoughts to points and questions raised that relate most directly to the concerns of WMS 320. As the day’s opening remarks suggested, when thinking about how the Arab Spring is unique, we should also consider its broader implications and the ways in which as “unique cases,” these uprisings also share similarities “across cases.” And, in this examination, specific attention should be paid to the ways in which these democratic movements challenged notions of space (both physical and virtual), gender, and human rights, and larger connections to structures of political and personal power. As Dalendra Larguèche noted, the Arab Spring opened new solidarities and spaces, but it also reinforced old ones. If new spaces of revolution have emerged, will they remain open, and for how long?
Of critical concern is the complex power dynamic between gender and “the state.” Heba Raouf Ezzat noted in her thrilling talk that there is a need to not only re-consider the idea of “state feminism,” but also to re-think the need and/or utility of feminist governance. These thoughts further problematized Shireen Hassim’s discussion of South Africa’s democratic struggles and the unfortunate ways in which the language of feminism did not speak to the situation of “ordinary people” in more rural areas. Or, as Rima Khalef succinctly noted, it is “easy to change laws,” but much “harder to change customs and traditions.”
With this in mind, one of the larger questions to come out of the conference is the need to constantly be mindful of who has the right to narrate, define, and defend revolution. In relation to activism and social media, I have asked my students to consider whether things like Facebook and Twitter are new ways to say the same old thing, or are new things being said by the very use of these technologies? That is, how might social media allow individuals to create a space of possibility from more general notions of “public space”?
The thoughts, observations, and lively conversation that my students engaged in via Twitter during the conference speak to this possibility, and I am incredibly proud of their participation during the day’s events. Through the diversity of voices, views, and opinions presented by the panelists, I believe the most important lesson learned by my students is perhaps one of the most simple: we all have the power to make a difference when we make our voices be heard. It is not enough for women to make history; they must also write and record it.
Here’s the thing about being cool—the harder you try, the less you succeed. Case in point: last year’s Academy Award’s disastrous choice of hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco. This year the Academy may have taken a different route, but the results were pretty much the same. After the whole Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy debacle (the two backed out as executive producer and host after Ratner made a series of public sexist and homophobic remarks), it appeared as if the Academy was going to play it safe by dusting off Billy Crystal to host yet again.
And yet, from Crystal’s opening montage, it became apparent that this year’s awards were going to be another series of missteps stemming from the Academy’s desperate attempt to stay relevant while refusing to accept the changing nature of today’s entertainment. How else do you explain the bizarre mixture of Justin Beiber, Billy Crystal, and Billy Crystal in “black face” as Sammy Davis Jr.? The joke fell flat, and so did the rest of the show. With fewer and fewer people going to the movies, the Academy did its best to try and remind us of the golden days of cinema (see: The Artist’s win as Best Picture), but instead reminded viewers of how far the industry has and has not come.
Last Thursday I taught my lesson on feminist media studies to my students in WMS 150. In explaining to them the difference between quantitative and qualitative analysis, we talked about the different kinds of representation we see on screen and why that might be. I asked my students to watch last night’s broadcast and suggested they think about the number of women nominated for awards, the types of awards for which they were nominated, the types of roles available to women, and lastly to just observe in general how men and women were treated during the broadcast. In terms of quantitative data, the Women’s Media Center did a great job of compiling stats on this year’s nominations (http://www.womensmediacenter.com/blog/entry/where-are-the-women-at-the-oscars-the-stats). For example, this year, no women were nominated in the categories of Directing, Cinematography, Documentary (feature), Music (original score), Sound Editing, or Visual Effects. In only three categories, did the number of women nominated outnumber men, but in all these categories there were also male nominees. Clearly, the “male gaze” is alive and well in Hollywood. Need more proof? How about the “popcorn girls” walking down the aisles as the show cut to commercial break. Is this really the golden age of cinema to which we want to return?
There were some highlights, though. Gabby Sidobe’s moving comment that, “When I see myself onscreen, I know that I exist,” served as a reminder for the potential of how far the film industry has come, but also the distances it needs to go. While this montage as a whole was yet another way in which the industry seemed desperate in its attempts to prove its worth, Sidobe’s comment speaks to the media’s complicated relationship to difference—whether it be by gender, race, class, or body size. I applaud her for saying this and the Academy for including it.
Perhaps the best moment of the night, though, was on the red carpet before the main show actually began. When Sacha Baron Cohen, who came in character from his upcoming film The Dictator, spilled the “ashes” of Kim Jong-Il on red carpet host Ryan Seacrest, I thought to myself, “finally, someone gets it.” Cohen’s brilliant mocking of Seacrest, the Academy, and their self-inflated sense of importance may have gotten him escorted off of the red carpet, but by then it was too late. The joke was literally on them, and as Cohen reminded us, it has been for some time.
I always start the first lecture of WMS 150: Introduction to Women’s Studies by tackling what seems to be the most obvious of questions: “What is Women’s Studies”? The majority of students sign up for the course with little knowledge of the discipline or what is expected of them. This is not surprising; most high school curricula do not cover the topic, and outside of academia Women’s Studies seems to fall victim to the same misconceptions and abuses that feminism does. Students do usually seem to have a vague sense that Women’s Studies has something to do with feminism, but again, without actually knowing what feminism is, this knowledge doesn’t provide them with much insight. This discussion of “definition” has become even more relevant this semester as WMS 150 has finally been approved as “Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies,” an exciting development that accompanies a faculty vote to begin the process to change the program’s name here at the University of Rhode Island to Gender and Women’s Studies. While courses in the Gender and Women’s Studies Program will still be committed to investigating women’s experiences, perspectives, and contributions, our proposed name change represents the program’s study of how the social construction of gender and the social relations of women and men structure our politics, culture, and everyday lives (or, as one student suggested on Thursday, our “self-identity” in a gendered world). Our new name also better reflects 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.
This question of “naming” has been on my mind for some time, and apparently I am not alone in my thoughts. In the recently published Rethinking Women’s and Gender Studies (Routledge 2012) editors Catherine M. Orr, Ann Braithwaite, and Diane Lichtenstein have compiled a strong collection of essays that address this very question. In exploring the “genealogy” of key terms associated with Gender and Women’s Studies (such as “feminism,” “activism,” “interdisciplinarity,” and “institutionalization”), the essays in the collection not only speak to the changing dynamics of the field of Gender and Women’s Studies, but also asks those engaged in this field of work to consider how “questioning any of these terms lead[s] us to issues we may not want to face, stakes we might not want to acknowledge, conclusions that may challenge us too deeply” (3). It’s a provocative challenge, and one that I hope to purse over the course of the semester, particularly in my instruction of WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action.
With this course, again, I’m brought back to this idea of “naming” as I, along with my students, consider the implications of “feminist thought” and “action.” What can be expected from such a course? My query speaks directly to Orr’s, Braithwaite’s, and Lichtenstein’s concerns, as they ask, “Why, for example is a term such as ‘feminism’ so easily assumed to be a requisite” for Gender and Women’s Studies, and likewise, why do “we repeat so widely and often” that Gender and Women’s Studies “is ‘activist’ yet seldom articulate exactly what we mean, or do not mean, by that term, or how it might function to propel the field in directions that should, at the very least, require further investigation” (2). While the catalog description of WMS 320 as “political thought, analysis, and activism campaigns for women’s rights” offers some direction, it seems to me that true “feminist thought into action” should require some type of active component, while at the same time, interrogate the very assumptions that Orr, Braithwaite, and Lichtenstein draw our attention to. Therefore, in this course I hope to not only have my students engage in their own forms of personal activism, but to push analysis even further into a critical engagement that questions the very relationships of feminism, activism, and Gender and Women’s Studies. That is, what is the value of these terms on their own, and how do they (or not?) contribute to the changing dynamics of Gender and Women’s Studies here at the University of Rhode Island and beyond?
Here’s a copy of the email I sent to the students in WMS 320 welcoming them to the course.
Welcome! If you are receiving this email it means you are currently registered for WMS 320: Feminist Thought Into Action. I am excited by all the names I recognize on the roster, and I am looking forward to meeting all of you that I do not yet know.
This is my third time teaching WMS 320, and I am extremely excited to be teaching it in a hybrid class format for the first time. I’m also excited about the updates and changes I’ve made to the course, as well as the additional credit opportunity that is being offered. I imagine that this course is going to be very different than any other Women’s Studies course (and perhaps any courses in other disciplines) that you have taken. I encourage you to visit our Sakai site as well as jennbrandt.net for more details. Please do not feel overwhelmed or confused by the outline or requirements of the class. I will explain everything in detail on Tuesday. My goal is to make this class as informative, useful, and FUN, as possible. All you need to bring is an open-mind and enthusiasm; the rest we will figure out together.
Please note that there is a text required for the course. It can be ordered online at Amazon.com, directly from the publisher, or at the URI bookstore. There is a also a copy of the text on reserve at the URI library.
Please email me directly with any questions. I will be in my office on Monday and on Tuesday before class if anyone would like to meet with me. I also encourage you to post on the blog a welcome hello to your classmates and our readers.
Enjoy these last few days of break!