It was a wonderful program. Joan asked penetrating questions and both Donna and Starhawk were responsive and challenging in their answers. They provided some good guidance on using speculative fiction (feminism/fabulation) and activism to stay with the trouble, to borrow the title of Donna’s most recent book (Staying with the Trouble.).
But something else about the evening affected me even more than listening to these three fascinating women talk: everyone who spoke, including those who introduced the speakers and the dean of the sponsoring department, was a woman.
I have never before attended a university-sponsored program at which only women spoke. And it got me to thinking: how would my life have been different if I had been exposed to more great women scholars when I went to college?
The women who spoke were my contemporaries, give or take, and younger. None of them would have been teaching when I was an undergraduate. I had three women teachers in college, but two of those were for women-only gym classes. The other was an American Studies seminar in which I was introduced to the work of Margaret Fuller.
In law school I had three: one for a class on gender and the law, one for a grad school class on urban planning, and the third for federal income tax. As someone who knew full well that I would never, ever practice tax law, I took tax solely because the professor was a woman. She was great, even if the subject was tedious.
Not counting the gym classes and marching band, I took somewhere between sixty and seventy academic classes in college and law school. Four women teachers. (And, just as an aside, none of the teachers were Black or Hispanic. There were a couple of opportunities, but I missed them.)
No wonder I thought I had to “act like a man” if I wasn’t going to be shoved aside into the acceptable roles for women, roles that I knew would not satisfy me. Most of the things that interested me were coded as male. (I was not cut out to be a teacher, nurse, secretary, or housewife. Especially that last one.)
While I was working on this essay, I came across a tweet from my fellow BVCer Judith Tarr. She was responding to an observation by Emily Wilson, who has just translated The Odyssey, and is apparently the first woman to do so (for major publication, that is), published in a New York Times article: “I never had a female mentor in classics.”
Judith said: “And I realize: I was blessed. My Classics mentors were all female.”
Judith went to Mount Holyoke, which was (and is) a women’s college and which had a large number of women on the faculty. She went from there to Cambridge and Yale with great confidence nurtured by her undergraduate experience.
It never occurred to me to go to a woman’s college when I was young. I thought I had to go into the male world if I wanted to amount to anything. So I went to law school at a time when most women didn’t – ten percent of my class was women – and I later took up martial arts.
I got very good at being the only woman in the room. It’s a valuable skill, but I’m beginning to recognize what I had to give up to get it.
I have no love of the law, but I still love the martial arts with great passion. What I regret, from both studies, are all the years I spent trying to impress men, trying to get them to take me seriously. Even with my background, it didn’t always work.
I don’t do that much anymore. These days I’m more interested in impressing women.
I keep stumbling across amazing work by women. Donna Haraway has been one of my idols for years, but my list keeps getting longer. Iris Marion Young, a scholar who was my contemporary and who died too young. Rebecca Solnit. Erica Chenoweth.
Obviously there are lots of women writing fiction who make my list, but I fell into the habit of reading lots of fiction by women in my late twenties, not coincidentally when I also fell into reading lots of science fiction and fantasy. It took me longer to find the current women scholars and philosophers and thinkers.
These days I want to write books and stories and essays that women admire. It’s fine if men like them, too, but it’s women’s take that matters to me now. The most thrilling thing that happened to me after The Weave came out was that Donna Haraway told me how much she liked it.
I want more experiences like that.