Liberation studies now.
That class (and I suspect many of the early, ecstatic, openly politicized women's studies classes) was distinguished by a near-leveling of power between students and teacher because of our mutual vast ignorance, an ignorance matched by passion to learn: students and teacher, at least at this elite state university, put so many hours into extra meetings, projects, readings that the concept of grades and credit seemed bizarre. The class was of necessity interdisciplinary - the texts were literary, but our discussions of them demanded forays into territories nothing in graduate school had prepared me for - and it emphasized the commonality of women's experience.
Second wave feminism is often ridiculed for this glib notion of monolithic sisterhood. In that intensely political moment, we knew that all women were not middle-class housewives longing to work outside the home; we read the work of black and white women, as wide a range as 1 could find in that time of almost no texts. But differences in experience were muted, and the complicating issues of location and privilege likewise.
If that first phase of women's studies might be characterized as "add women and stir" - women and politics, women and literature, women and whatever, huge topics because there was so little written - the next phase, initiated by the challenge of identity politics, asked: Add which women and stir? Who does the stirring? Yet the era of identity politics generated its own distortions, an ever-lengthening list of seemingly equated identities ("I am a white Norwegian thirty-something able-bodied s/m lesbian vegetarian Virgo from the suburbs"), while the "politics" aspect shriveled in the Reagan-Bush years. From mass movement to small groups to self-help: not an inspiring trajectory.
The current phase of women's studies emerges as we dislodge the US (or "the West," or "the North") from its imaginary position at center stage and in the vanguard of feminist progress; as we disrupt the assumption that "we" are advanced and women in other nations must pass through identical stages, if they're lucky. This phase advances a transnational perspective essential in the light of globalization. Look at the movements of peoples - refugees and workers - across national borders, driven by economic and political changes as well as by forces set in motion by colonization; the reformulation of identity and community in diaspora. Look at the migration of capital across national borders, the power of the US dollar and of the International Monetary Fund. As we in the US witness essentials like shelter, food, health care and education transformed from a hard-won category of human rights to a private store of goodies for those who can afford them, we can investigate how human rights are imagined in other parts of the world. This means a shift from conceiving of women's studies as an annex or ladies room to envisioning it as a site of at least a little insurrection - a perspective that unsettles traditional disciplines and academic frameworks and examines the ways in which structures of oppression and privilege inflect one another.
Why, then, "Women's" Studies? A good question. I am not for discarding the name - even the new fashion of "Gender Studies" makes me nervous, dangling as it does the possibility that men will wind up at the center once again. Still, I resonate to the suggestion offered recently by Vivien Ng, of SUNY-Albany, that we should be yoking together Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies, Jewish Studies and Queer Studies under the rubric of Liberation Studies - which reminds us of the point. And in this time of capitalist triumphalism and worldwide resurgent fundamentalisms, we need to remember the point.
What might a course from this juncture of postcolonial and feminist perspectives look like? In 1995 I joined the Hamilton College faculty as the Jane Watson Irwin Visiting Professor of Women's Studies, a position that has been occupied by such shaping influences as M. Jacqui Alexander, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ama Ata Aidoo and Papusa Molina. I was handed the course title "Gender/Race/Class/Nation" with some general goals which I interpreted thus: to teach students to see through a multiple lens, and to understand that gender is inherently a multiple lens; to destabilize whiteness; to refocus so that where we are, in this case in the US at a small elite liberal arts college, is not construed as the epicenter of the universe; to heighten awareness of economic class and the shift of resources from public to private that typifies contemporary social policy.
Remember the first day of that class in Berkeley in 1972, the one-page list? With "Gender/Race/Classification," in the mid-nineties, on the first day I divide the students into small groups, hand each group a different New York Times article, and give them twenty minutes to read and discuss the relationship of the constructs in the course title to the events in the article. On any given day, the Times will have at least five or six highly appropriate articles, treating, for example, childcare for workfare mothers; ethnic Chinese, "the Jews of Asia"; growing support for English-only legislation; sweatshops in Manila and in New York's Chinatown; statistics on AIDS among heterosexuals; high incidence of domestic violence reported by police wives; gay adoption tearing a town apart... Students are encouraged to tease out the various threads: what has workfare to do with organized labor? how does scapegoating serve the status quo? why are sweatshops always perceived as located "out there"? what has happened to the public discourse on AIDS as the epidemic's perceived center shifts? is there a relationship between racist police brutality and domestic violence? why is homosexuality threatening?
Now instead of excavating basic texts, our task is to make sense of - at least, to make questions of - complex and seemingly infinite information. I use a range of materials and disciplines, but the daily news remains central. I want my students to see gender, race, class and nation in practice.
Also on the first day I discuss objectivity and bias; centrality and margins; and state very clearly (though I will have to repeat this many times throughout the semester), "I am not saying it's not okay to be who you are, white, middle-class, Christian, male, straight, whatever; I am saying, you have to notice it and where it places you." Because my own perspective and biases are sharp and explicit, I need to stress again and again (and model, through behavior in class) that students need not agree with me. Even so, I expect each semester at least one virulent accusation of favoritism or bias; I have learned the best defense will emerge from all the students who feel respected despite differences in values and opinions.
But it is worth mentioning that I an itinerant academic, was not constrained by hopes of tenure, and, as a white woman in middle age, I no longer have to fight to establish my authority (as I did when I was young). My colleagues of color, on the other hand, face privileged white students whose main contact with women of color has been as domestic workers; women professors of color are often perceived by such students as inherently unauthoritative, unkind (if at all critical) and vulnerable to attack. All of which argues for white women tackling these hard questions in our classes.
For our opening readings I establish a postcolonial feminist perspective with Chandra Mohanty's "Under Western Eyes" and Edward Said's "Reflections on Exile," and challenge the myth of objectivity with Maia Ettinger's witty "The Pocahontas Paradigm, or Will the Subaltern Please Shut Up?" I also establish a format: we begin each series of new readings with written questions (my own, or drawn from their questions about the readings), to be answered in small groups of three or four.
Questions might include: 1. Ettinger describes a Person Lacking an Agenda - a PLA. What does she mean? Is there such a thing as a PLA? What might another name be? 2. Drawing on Said's essay, what relationship do you see between exile and national identity? Between nation and nationalism? 3. What connections do you see among the three articles? 4. What is Mohanty's criticism of Western feminist scholarship? Is she saying third world women aren't oppressed as women? What is the "third world difference"? Dividing into small groups with focused questions gets quieter students talking, and makes each student responsible to the others for completing course readings on time.
Such a course demands some tricky footwork. This one has no prerequisites, but is required for the Women's Studies major, which means that students with very sophisticated gender and race politics are learning alongside of those whose understanding is rudimentary. For traditional age students, often most interested in the self, the course's emphasis on situating the self in the context which makes said self possible can feel like a guilt trip. Adept and complex as the instructor and materials may be, some students will nevertheless freeze in the stance of victim, therefore shunning responsibility. Others will jump on the attack bandwagon.(1) If there are only one or two students in any of the minority categories, there's a danger of voyeurism, or of one or two people pressed into service, or appointing themselves, as spokespeople.
This is a class in which students get angry, be it about sexism, racism, class, or other experiences of oppression summoned in classroom discussions as some students reveal attitudes that others find offensive. A white woman, eyes brimming with tears, tells the class that Elsie, the African American housekeeper who raised her, was really family, and a Puertorriquena counters, "Who was raising Elsie's children?" A white man blurts out, "Why do we need pigeonholes, why can't you see me as a person?" "You make us feel guilty for being straight," two sorority sisters accuse the in-your-face class queers. For the instructor, finding the delicate balance between supporting the anger while keeping the classroom a safe place takes skill, tact, time and attention to group process, including figuring out when students need to meet in small groups and divided according to what logic.
This is more complicated than it sounds. When we focus on gender, groups divide into women and men. On sexuality, I ask them to self-identify; given the paucity of out queer students, I group them together, and the straight students likewise - though I think next time I would create a group for exploring students unwilling or unable to pin themselves down. On race, again, the small number of students of color at Hamilton means I place all the students of color into a single group, the Jewish students into a group, and the white/Christian students into several small groups. I ask them to answer the following questions: 1. Describe your growing up family, race/ethnic/class/cultural/religious background. 2. What other peoples were around in your growing up neighborhood(s)? What were your/your family's relationships to them? 3. What are your earliest memories of color other than your own? What information were you given to deal with these differences? 4. What are your relationships with people across lines of color now?
When we focus on class, I ask each student to complete a form which elicits very concrete data about class status. Students are often angry about what they perceive as prying, which makes for fascinating discussion. Using these forms, I divide them into groups according to similar class background. The mix-and-match format works well to create multiple bonds, though a small "why can't we just be people?" contingent is never quite convinced that discreet silence about difference is not a solution.
Students at Hamilton were most detached from the "nation" unit, and I found films and guest speakers invaluable for embodying abstractions like "occupation" or "sweatshops," and for teasing out the relationship between the US and these concepts (foreign aid, sweatshops at home as well as abroad, union busting, etc.). Speakers during past semesters have included Saraswati Sunindyo on feminism and militarism in Indonesia and JoAnn Lum on organizing women sweatshop workers in New York's Chinatown. Films on Nike plants and on the School of the Americas were also useful.
Two topics proved most compelling. First, violence against women - no surprise, as young women on this campus were raped at fraternity parties on an average of one a weekend. Connections between hate of all varieties were easy to draw, and when a lesbian student received an obscene threatening letter, I was proud that it was students from this class who leapt into action, covering the campus with graffiti and hundreds of copies of the hate letter, transformed by their comments.
The second topic of great power was economic class. There is always electricity in the room when I explain - an obvious point which rarely gets made - that while differences in gender, race, etc. do not inherently dictate inequality, class structure cannot exist without inequality because class is inequality. The related issue of surplus value was also useful, to interrogate the notion of property and wealth, and as a lens trained on reproductive labor ("wages for housework"; the gap between what a professional woman might earn and what she pays another woman to care for the children and the house).
Some of the most provocative and engaging student projects focused on class. One analyzed how students perceived and treated housekeeping and janitorial staff at the college. (This project also included an analysis of work dynamics between the student co-authors, an Asian-Pacific woman whose mother is a housekeeper and an upper-class European man.) Another project organized a cost-sharing experiment: drawing on the work of Felice Yeskel, "Coming Out About Money: Cost Sharing Across Class Lines," this student elicited class identity from a group of friends at the college and through open discussion of this information facilitated the group's allocation of the cost of eating dinner at a restaurant in a way that "felt fair" to all of them, breaking through the silence around money that often pervades even close friendships, and modeling an approach not strictly based on private property.
I will be teaching a similar class this summer at SUNY-New Paltz. Aside from updating the syllabus and adapting it to a very different student body (appreciating the greater diversity, bemoaning the reduced resources), I plan to add a unit on Christian hegemony. This seems critical: to counter media hyper-emphasis on Muslim fundamentalism; to investigate possibilities of alliance - in the US, among religious and sexual minorities confronting a rising and virulent Christianity, and around the world, among women in struggle against fundamentalisms of all kinds.
One final point: women's studies, especially at public institutions, is under attack by the same forces which savage affirmative action and public assistance, trash immigrants, defend courses that depict happy slaves, cheerfully bomb Iraq and relentlessly pump out misinformation to keep all of us at each other's throats. (Witness a recent report that "many educators are beginning to think boys should get more attention," pitting the educational needs of girls against boys, and, more insidiously, against students of color - as if such concerns are mutually exclusive.(2)) The intersections of gender, race, class and nation are not abstract. What's needed is a post-postmodernism to move beyond fragmented identities, not merely to name the dots but to connect them, and to rebuild the bridges between theoretical and practical work that characterized the best of early women's studies.
1 See my discussion of the Good White Knight, who positions her/himself as the only white "good" on racism, which s/he demonstrates by attacking and shaming other whites: "Anti-Semitism, Homophobia, and the Good White Knight." off our backs (May 1982). The "Good Knight" can manifest among any dominant group.
2 Tamar Lewin, "How Boys Lost Out to Girl Power," New York Times Week In Review (December 13, 1998), p. 3.
Aidoo, Ama Ata, Our Sister Killjoy (or, Reflections from a Black-Eyed Squint). Longman, 1988.
Feinberg, Leslie, Stone Butch Blues. Firebrand, 1993.
Kaye/Kantrowitz, Melanie, The Issue is Power: Essays on Women, Jews, Violence and Resistance. Aunt Lute, 1992.
Marshall, Paule, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. Vintage, 1992.
The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal
MELANIE KAYE/KANTROWITZ has taught women's studies, Jewish studies, race theory and creative writing all over the the US, most recently as the Belle Zeller Distinguished Professor of Public Policy at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Her work is widely published in the feminist, gay and lesbian, and progressive Jewish press. She has just completed a novel and is writing a book on Jews and whiteness, tentatively titled The Color of Jews.
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|Title Annotation:||combining gender, race, class and nation studies; includes list of required reading; Teaching for Change|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1999|
|Previous Article:||Signing on for the duration.|
|Next Article:||From thought to action.|