For an essay assignment in the Paradise class, my students are reading Rebecca Solnit’s “Thirty-nine Steps Across the Border and Back” from her collection, Storming the Gates of Paradise. I had never heard of Solnit before coming across this book on Amazon while looking for some interesting course materials.
Typically, when I start the work of a new author, I like to show short interviews of the author from YouTube to humanize these names they’re reading and to give background on the writer’s obsessions or agendas. So, as usual, I looked around YouTube for an interview with Solnit. What immediately struck my eye was an interview of hers with the words, “Santa Barbara Massacre” in the title. What massacre? One that took place in 2014? I googled. It was the news story about a twenty two year old who went on a shooting rampage with “retribution” on his mind. He targeted college students, women in a sorority house, and men, that he perceived as, sexually active and overly rewarded.
With the last two days of Women’s History Month left, and with the introduction to Solnit, I took the opportunity to show the interview in class. I explained that Solnit’s argument focused on misogyny and pointed out that many of the surrounding issues were diluted for the purpose of the feminist agenda. Indeed misogyny was a perpetrator in the shooter’s frame of mind, but so were many other distorted ideas. Misogyny alone did not cause the rampage, however, it played a part.
Before starting the video, I emphasized that this is Solnit’s voice, not mine, that it’s Women’s History Month and that I had no idea that Solnit was a feminist when I chose the reading. I had to provide excuses. I was nervous. I worried I was not making enough links for why this is a relevant video to watch. On paper, the links are there…an interview with our next author, women’s history month and the rhetoric of our landscapes. So why did I feel so tense? I still feel tense. I feel, to be honest, sort of ridiculous, like a cliché of the female professor. I’m carrying around this headache that throbs with the idea that “I’m just another woman professor with a feminist agenda,” but I’m not. In fact, the class readings are all written by men, except for this one essay. Our topics are literally gender neutral like the philosophy of environmental restoration, the idea of paradise as afterlife and political corruption, so why should I feel weird about showing them this interview with Solnit?
One way to separate my intellectual awareness from my guilt-ridden concerns was to imagine a male professor showing this interview. There are many male professors who dive into the crossfire of gender relations either whole-heartedly or with the aims of provoking critical analysis in controversial discussion. “If I were a man,” I find myself thinking, “and I showed this video, it would still make sense. In fact, if I knew a male professor made students watch this, I’d be really impressed. I bet students would be impressed too.” This train of thought gave me the motivation I needed to keep loyal to today’s lesson plan. By envisioning the video in the lesson plans of a male colleague, I could give my lesson the approval stamp it needed from me.
Holding on to this vision of a man showing Solnit’s interview to his class, I showed the interview with a follow-up discussion to all four of my classes. While I gave myself permission to use this “feminist” video based on the story of my fictional male colleague that would also use it, behind the actions of the lesson, within me, remains my heavy insecurities and innate resulting shame of seeming like a cliché. By sitting down and self-analyzing what the heck happened to me out there today, I see that– I degrade the intellectual content of feminists just like some of my male graduate snooty professors did. Though I’m not out there sounding like a complete jerk (as they did), my mindset is just as subconsciously polluted.
The more I give excuses to my classes anytime I show anything slightly resembling feminist theory, the more I apologize, the more I limit myself from discussing woman-related issues, the more I enable the rejection of women’s theory in the classroom, the discussion of woman associated topics in the mainstream culture gets more silenced. But– to put it embarrassedly frank– I’m scared of being type casted by academics and even students as a feminist. In order not to be “boxed in” I purposefully try not to sound feminist. I’m sometimes harsher on certain materials because I fear the undertow of a feminist theme. The stigma against feminism is so powerful that I self-censure across the fields. However, when looking at all the realms of my life, I fear feminism the most in academia, where it rests at the bottom of the barrel of academic apples.
Without any sugar coating, feminist theory is a joke in academia. Unlike the studies of a nation’s economy or the analysis of Shakespeare’s wrung dry double meanings, feminist stuff, no matter how layered in complexity, intellectual rigor or opportunities to practice metacognition (Oh and of course, layered in– least importantly–social development, progress and equal rights), it displays a giant label that reads, “WARNING: if you pay this any attention, you must be a woman with hairy arm pits, with no real intellectual ambition that points her finger at man, society and everything great for all her problems. In other words, you must be a weak, whiny, b#$ch).
I’m really not trying to be feminist here, I swear! (I would never stoop so low ). I’m simply trying to sort out my unreasonable thoughts because as an intellectual being, I know that today’s lesson went well and that it offered an engaging intro to the next reading. But, as a female professional today, I’m apparently overly-preoccupied with not being a feminist, which perhaps inhibits my performance as much as my potential to help younger women not live with an irrational fear of feminism.