I want to tell you an old story. During my first year at Columbia, it occurred to me during a brief reverie that something was odd about the literature we were reading and how it represented women. In the margins of my notebook, I began making a branch of every book we read in Literature Humanities (aka Lit Hum), and I noted how each author in the western canon defined women over time– from St. Augustine, Boccaccio, Apuleius, Dante, to Goethe.
I remember some vague controversy my first year among instructors and administration about whether or not A Vindication of The Rights of Women should be mandated in the curriculum’s reading list. I think a mild concession was reached which allowed instructors the option to include Wollstonecraft’s book in their courses (mostly women did so). In the lottery of the hundreds of sections of Lit Hum, my prof chose Virginia Woolf in lieu of Wollstonecraft for reasons unknown other than I think he liked her writing, and she’d be the sole woman’s voice on a syllabus that included 20 books.
I can attribute my earliest understanding about gender and her politics to Columbia core. It was there, following the thread of western thought crafted by men, where I began to see an emergent pattern about the demonization and subjugation of the female body and mind, how a set of extreme prescriptive rules throughout the formation of western civilization codified gender inequality.
The core curriculum is a staple at Columbia. Every undergraduate for the nearly a century has taken these courses. On one hand, it’s kind of cool to have a unifying set of books to explain the underlying philosophy of western civilization, and on the other hand it’s indicative of why women and people of color have had to agitate for equality in leadership and representation in every aspect of our society. In my reading and discussion of those books, I understood that whole narratives were being erased, and lauding these stories meant to reinforce the supremacy of knowledge through the western white male gaze. Those classes were actually a microcosm of the world in which we were expected to enter and out of survival, a world we needed to change.
I told this story recently to a gathering of women at brunch some Sundays back. We were talking about everyone’s favorite trifecta of feminist lightening rods, Sheryl Sandberg, Beyonce, and Hillary Clinton. The question set forth at the table was what had been our entry points.
For many in my circle, all roads often lead to bell or Gloria. And in later years, I’m delighted to hear how women (and men) began their inquiries into the cultural constructs around gender by reading Feministing.
I explained to my friends over brunch that it was reading a doctoral dissertation in the school library researching the origins of the core curriculum when I was first introduced to the terms white supremacist hegemony and patriarchy. It was Lit Hum of all things, not bell hooks, that introduced me to feminism.
I’m sharing this rather old story because I’ve been thinking about how I’ve grown irritated by discussions within academic circles and online about entry points into feminism. I think about this as a teacher, an artist, and as a woman. The gateway into complex inquiries around identities, politics and culture isn’t always linear and under the prescriptive auspices of a survey gender studies class.
In one of my classes this semester, I assigned my students to write a narrative to define their generation. A student chose Beyonce’s solo album to talk about gender. This isn’t unique, except that prior to the class (and album) I don’t think she have considered herself feminist; she never heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie until she heard ***Flawless. She read the Shriver Report and wrote a balanced essay, which I know was her first critical examination of what these things mean in her world. I saw a lot of myself in my student, who comes from a working class community of color that wouldn’t have engaged in this kind of polemic discourse. The project invited her to read current voices online, as well as dip into classic works by feminist scholars. I’m so here for that.
My student’s triumph in her work, reminded me of a key point Brittany Cooper made at the advent of the Beyonce thinkpieces and critiques:
Academic feminism ain’t the only kid on the block. Confession: the first time I identified as a feminist, I was in grad school. I was able to come to an informed conclusion after reading Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s Words of Fire and Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought. But we need to stop acting like a radical feminist is the only kind of feminist to be. I mean look, I’m radical and committed to a robust structural critique… So when women of color start waxing eloquent about how our grandmothers and mothers were the first feminists we knew and many of them would “never” use the term, I wonder then why we don’t understand Beyonce’s homegrown brand of feminism – one that honors female friendships, one that recognizes and calls out sexism and domination in her industry, one that celebrates the power of women. No, it ain’t well-articulated radical social justice feminism, but if you need a Ph.D. to be a feminist, then we’ve got bigger problems, folks. AND I’ll take a feminist that knows how to treat her homegirls before one who can spit the finer points of a bell hooks to me all day erry-day.
It’s certainly why I find it troubling when hooks in her recent discussion with Janet Mock conflated terrorism (a loaded term with real implications) with the pop star. The message seems to imply a lesson that I find problematic in all the critiques– that there is a singular route to engage feminism– rooted in theory. Certainly, there are some merit-worthy critiques to make about feminism and neoliberalist capitalism to question what we’re consuming in the form of Sandberg and King B. Yet I worry that provocative word play from our scholar elders could alienate a young woman, early in her dialogue with an ideology that seeks to affirm her personhood, her right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and equally protect her body under the law.
Sometimes, it can feel like we’re all expected to be perfect in our application and discussion of feminism with the world at the very moment we’re introduced to it. Our scholar elders have done incredible work to help build a foundation for us to stand on but certainly feminism is strong enough to empower new initiates space to investigate it. I was fortunate to utilize the academy to delve into what any of this stuff means, but I’m certainly not dismissive of people who don’t have those resources. I’ve never taken a gender studies course and the class I taught this past semester wasn’t a gender studies course either. I refuse to shut them out of the conversation.
I felt kinship and excitement that my student thought the messages and images in “Pretty Hurts” and “Flawless” were worthy of further investigation. I don’t know if this means she will read the canon of feminist scholars throughout the rest of her studies. But she is now able to communicate effectively about gender inequality in our world. That’s really important. She’s just beginning her journey. I imagine she’ll come into contact with folks who aren’t in the online media echo chambers or academics to articulate what she’s learned. People are living and struggling in the world with this stuff. In many respects, I wonder if we could remember to temper our theoretical deconstructions of the world to connect to the very people we’re trying to save.
Syreeta McFadden is deliriously happy to be done with grading for the semester. True story.