Learning From Women

Staying with the TroubleA few weeks back, I had the opportunity to attend a program featuring Donna Haraway and Starhawk in conversation put together by Joan Haran at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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.



Learning From Women — 11 Comments

  1. Information / Library Science programs were the great exception — their faculties were predominately female by a vast margin — until the great tech bust of the naughts, when young males who suddenly were unemployed shoved their way into the library systems across the land and proceeded to get rid of all the books, by the way.

    One exception, again, to that, was who taught most of the legal law – library courses.

    A primary reason I’d never considered such a thing as a Sister School, was — class and money. The only person I knew who went to such a school after hs grad. was a legacy of her mom for Smith, and then, later, for law school, a legacy of both mom and dad at Harvard.

    • I was never meant to be a librarian, either, but the network of women stemming from library schools is a cheering one. I know all these storytellers who started out that way. And the more I see of what librarians do, the more I respect them.

      Law libraries were male places back in the day, though I think that’s changed quite a bit.

      And yeah, I certainly didn’t have the money for any of those schools, especially not when I could go to an excellent state university for pennies.

  2. At the time I was looking at colleges I did not want to go to an all-woman school; the sense I had (growing up in the Northeast) was that the ones I looked at were still enmeshed in 1950’s tea party manners (my interview at Vassar, and tour of the campus, was particularly like this) and I regret that I didn’t look beyond the social mannerisms of the campus to the idea of who was doing the teaching (I was 17, after all). In fact, I wound up going to a school that had been, until three years before, a women’s college. Maybe that was helpful. I had a number of really wonderful teachers–a couple of whom I would call mentors–who were women. One thing I remember is that those were the instructors who were not afraid to let their love and passion for the subjects they taught shine through. And that made a huge difference for me.

    • The social mannerisms would certainly have given me the same reaction. I didn’t even fit into the woman’s culture from my own part of the world and the elite East Coast one would have sent me running. My women friends came from band and debate — we weren’t the cool kids. It never occurred to me that there might be an intellectual community of women I could fit into. It’s only now that I truly recognize it. And want it, so very badly.

      • If you think about it, we internalized the idea that women were second-class citizens and women’s colleges were inferior. Men’s colleges and coed colleges were superior. “More well-rounded,” I was told.

        It was insidious and pervasive. I got shit during and after my years at Mt. Holyoke because I went to a (sneer) GIRLS’ school. I loved it while I was there, but it took me many years to realize the extent of what it did for me. I had male professors, the faculty were carefully half and half, but the ones I remember best were women.

        Some of my classmates left for men’s schools gone coed, and felt as if they were moving up. One in particular took a long time to recognize that she had internalized both the “men better” and “women bitchy and untrustworthy” myths. So deeply that she had no women friends till rather late in life. She actively resisted having any.

        The more we unpack this, the more…interesting it gets.

        As for the tea-ladies thing, I didn’t care. MHC had horses and PE was required. I could take the teas as long as I got to ride.

        I had some wild rides after noon seminars in which we drank much wine and ate a little cheese. Tea we drank, but gallon for gallon, I’d say we consumed quite a bit more wine.

        • Yes. This is exactly what I was thinking about when I wrote this. I’m sure I thought a woman’s college would be “second-rate.” And there’s also that “I’ll be the woman the men take seriously” attitude. It took me a long time to ditch that one.

          I loved my undergraduate program — I didn’t have to state a major and I got exposed to things I would never have thought to check out. And the University of Texas was way cheap back in the day. But …

          • We had the Five-College program to enhance what was available at MHC: courses at Smith, Amherst, Hampshire, and UMass Amherst were open to us, and we could participate in various campus activities all over the place. It was like going to a large university but having our own small college as a base–kind of similar to the Oxbridge system, which I slid into pretty easily, attending Newnham and being a part of the larger Cambridge community.

            What I love in retrospect is how many women mentors I had, and how I learned to be proud of the history of women’s colleges. By the time I got to Yale, I was so much more confident and so much less inclined to think of myself as a lesser being. I knew I could speak up and be heard–and at Yale I was, too; my department was great, though by then most of the professors were male. But not all. They treated me well and never let me feel as if I was not all that because I was a girl.

  3. I always had women professors in college, about 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 – they were definitely more frequent than women bus drivers. It was only when I attended my first international event that I realized I had picked a “men-mostly” subject.

    Nowadays we still have events that could take place on Mount Athos without missing a single speaker, and (thus?) very few participants. My personal reaction is to organize events which are not labeled as “Women whatever” but still feature only women speakers.

    I also occasionally go to a women-only conference (note: this means it is labeled as such and only women speak – men *could* participate, but they rarely do). It’s refreshing. My women colleagues and me also use social media to keep networking at a distance, as many of us have only male colleagues.

    • I am reminded of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s response to the question of how many women supreme court justices would be enough. “Nine,” she said. It’s the idea of having all women in what were once male-only spaces that affects me the most.

  4. One of the things I enjoyed about being a [foreign language] education major 3+ years ago was reading professional papers, in which the default pronoun was “she.” It felt deliciously subversive and refreshing.

    • I’ve noticed that law review articles these days either do that or alternate she and he (when they’re talking about non-specific individuals). I’ve seen that from some very conservative lawyers, so I guess the style is changing.

      I wonder if people still snicker a lot in marital property rights classes. My professor was male, but his wife was also a lawyer and he was reasonably progressive for the 70s. But the other students weren’t.