IN HER OWN WORDS: Tools for Feminists in Today’s Post-Feminist Climate
By Barbara S. Mitrano, EdD, professor in Women and Gender Studies Program
The College at Brockport (SUNY)
One of the great joys of college teaching comes when a student realizes—not only conceptually or temporarily but personally and deeply—that what she has learned can (and will) change her life. When what she has learned is the in-tersectionality of gender, race and class, the moment is also fraught with anxiety and frustration.
During 10 years of teaching in the Women and Gender Studies program, I have heard the anxiety and frustration phrased in different ways, but it usually comes down to: “Now that I know all this, how can I live my life without going crazy?!!”
Part of the dismay is the realization that once you become aware of something, you find it very difficult—if not impossible—to go back to your previous state of unawareness. This means that you notice things you never noticed before. When the things you notice are sexism, racism, classism and other “isms,” there is also a sense that there is some obligation to do something about it, if only because it directly affects you (another awareness).
Another part of the difficulty is the realization that these issues are systemic—part of the social fabric, taken for granted and therefore very difficult to change—so the student feels overwhelmed. How can she possibly do anything about “all this?”
These questions seem to me to be poignantly important as I have grown older and realized that, in one form or another, I have been battling them most of my adult life. So the answers I have painstakingly arrived at are the scars from my own struggles to live life with awareness as a feminist. These are probably not original, but I claim them as my own because they have become integrated into my life.
First: Find like-minded people, women and men who think like you do, who value what you do.
All of us need a place where we can speak our own vernacular and be understood without having to explain ourselves. All of us need a place to vent our frustrations with the small (and not so small) indignities that we hear and endure about our gender, our race, our class, our disability or whatever else it might be that makes us different from a society that rarely sees difference in a positive light.
I have been fortunate throughout my life to have had different groups of women that I have met with regularly who have fulfilled this need. This is not self-indulgent or ethnocentric; it is simply a matter of survival and of maintaining some sort of sanity in a crazy world.
There seems to be an urgent need for this among the young feminists that I teach. In various forms, they receive the message daily that they are “crazy.” It may be someone telling them they have no sense of humor when they refuse to laugh at a sexist or racist joke. It may be their family or their partner who wonders why they are so upset or excited about “this stuff” because everyone is equal now so what’s the big deal?
This search for like-mindedness extends to organizations and institutions. In every sector, there are people working on the margins or borderlands. They often have to be sought out. You can’t always tell by what they look like or what they say, but they are out there.
Second: Pick your battles.
Because there is so much inequity in the world—even in our little corner of it—no one can address every instance or even every area of injustice. Each of us needs to find the topic, or the issue that is our passion and work diligently to produce feminist thinking and action in that area.
My passion is gender equity in education. It has always been gender equity in education. One of my students is into law regarding domestic violence; another is involved with sexual assault organizations; still another is involved with lesbian invisibility.
It’s not that we don’t see how our passion is connected to other areas. We do. But our time and energy is limited and so we do what we can where our hearts tell us to go.
This extends to the small remarks and situations we encounter every day. I am not going to get into a discussion with the aerobics instructor who calls us “girls.” When a man opens the door for me, I say, “Thank you” and walk through, knowing that I will pass this courtesy on when I can. I am not going to argue with a 75-year-old woman who can’t under-stand why her son, the doctor, does the dinner dishes, even though her daughter-in-law is also a doctor.
I don’t lecture my sister-in-law who says that I am easy to buy for because she can buy clothes for me, but my husband is not so easy because “guys are different; they don’t care about clothes.” I simply tell her that my husband does care about clothes, so it’s fine to buy him a sweater.
A corollary to “pick your battles” is to carefully select the people to whom you are willing to explain things. I will not respond to people who are out to “bait” me about sexism. These are the people whose attitude seems to be “Don’t confuse me with the facts.” They don’t want to listen and their questions are not attempts to acquire information, but to prove that they are right and you are wrong.
There are others, however, who are sincere about their questions, who do want to understand something better and are willing to listen to what you have to say. These are the people who, when they learn I am teaching Feminist Research Methods, ask, “What is the difference between feminist research methods and masculine research methods?” These people are worth spending time with.
Third: Join organizations of women and men who are working for the causes you believe in.
Do it even if you don’t think the organization fits all of the criteria that you have for a feminist organization.
The cliché about there being strength in numbers is true. National organizations have clout that individuals don’t. It is thanks to these organizations that we have laws about rape, sexual harassment, equal pay for equal work, abortion and equity in education. While laws don’t automatically change social mores, they do provide awareness and gradually shift the tone of discourse. Whatever an individual thinks about sexual harassment, there are few who don’t know what the word refers to and that it is an issue in the workplace.
No organization can be structured to please everyone. This is the place to focus on the issue that is your passion. If the organization is working to make that issue a priority on the national agenda, then support it in whatever way you can. If you have some money, give it. If you have time, give that.
This will contribute to your sense that you are part of something that magnifies your efforts by joining them to women and men who share your vision. Another cliché is relevant here: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Fourth: Do something regularly that has nothing to do with this passion.
Hike, read formula novels, swim, cook, collect stamps, knit, quilt… the list is endless. This provides rest and re-freshment and renewal. Just as you need a group where you can discuss your excitement and/or your outrage, you need time and space in which you do not think or discuss the injustices that plague you the rest of the time.
At least I need this time and distraction, perhaps others do not. If I do not have this neutral “space,” I find myself feeling overwhelmed, discouraged and disheartened. I lose the energy to move forward with conviction and enthusiasm. For me, this is a matter of taking care of myself—something that most women still find hard to do.
I have learned to say no even to things that I strongly believe in if I am doing too much. I have finally internalized the concept that if I do not renew myself, I have nothing to give to the rest of the world.
A final note: I fully recognize the privilege of being able to voice these reflections. I have the luxury of being able to think about feminism and to teach about it. I have like-minded colleagues who support my thinking and my writing.
I am grateful to them and to my students who question me and challenge me about how I live the feminist identity that I am proud to claim.
Barbara Mitrano at firstname.lastname@example.org