I was optimistic walking into the “Women’s Literature & Feminist Learning” panel at the Barnard Center for Research on Women’s conference “Activism and the Academy.” So far, I had seen a keynote by Sonia E. Alvarez that was a little too theoretical for me to fully appreciate, and an amazing panel on “Writing, New Media, & Feminist Activism” featuring our very own Ileana. But as I tend to lean a little more towards the academy than towards activism, I was dorkily psyched to hear all about books and classes.
The panel on “Women’s Literature & Feminist Learning” consisted of four women, namely Leslie Calman, a political scientist and former head of the BCRW; Heather Hewett of SUNY New Paltz; Stephanie Staal, a writer and Barnard alum; and Lori Rotskoff, a historian. The audience seemed to be largely older women, with a decent smattering of what looked like college students or recent grads.
Anyway, when the panel started, I was a little taken aback. Their topic of discussion, the panelists announced, was to be adult feminist education. Adult education? I panicked briefly, verified that I was in the correct room, and panicked again. What could I, who hasn’t even graduated high school, get from hearing about adult education? Could I appreciate that these women were going to discuss? Would I understand? I calmed myself and decided to give it a try.
The talk, of course, ended up being fabulous. While certainly feminist action, activism, and politics are important, it was nice to hear about feminism in regards to literature and learning. Furthermore, the brand of feminism the panel discussed was concerned less with oppression and power, and more with simply being a woman. I realize what I’m saying is somewhat opposed to certain modern theories of feminism, including those laid out in bell hooks’s chapter “Feminism: A Movement to End Sexist Oppression”, which I greatly admire, but I believe that there is room for multiple feminisms. The panelists spoke of the importance of books and academia, in ways both personal and political. Although the conversation itself was interesting and insightful, the panel was really valuable to me because it made me think about and reconsider my own connections to feminism and books.
The point that resonated with me the most came courtesy of Ms. Rotskoff. “That’s a feminist project, to read a book by a woman author, in and of itself,” she said, “it’s a feminist project to be and create an audience for these books.” It definitely struck a chord – a guilty chord. I’ve always been critical of the practice of elevating certain books merely because their authors were female. It’s certainly unfortunate that history conspired to make most classic writers men, but that’s the way things are. But as Ms. Rotskoff spoke, my mind slinked guiltily back to my Harold Bloom books. Was my stance against the politicization of literature a betrayal of my sex? Does it make me unfeminist? Anti-feminist? My problem is not with women authors themselves, but with a curriculum or canon ignoring certain books while promoting lesser ones for the sake of diversity. The panel discussed classes involving solely female and feminist literature was it saying that certain books belonged there, as opposed to in a more general lit course, akin to saying women belong in the kitchen? My point involves placing the sanctity of academia over the importance of diversity. Do I have my priorities wrong?
These questions led to reflection on my other feminist literary failures. One of the panelists (I believe it was Ms. Staal) mentioned her connection to books as “life rafts.” This was a view I wholeheartedly understand. I, too, constantly turn to books for solace, advice, sympathy, and myriad other emotional needs. But, as Ms. Staal spoke of her connection to The Feminine Mystique and other important feminist texts, I had a realization: it was rare that I turned to books for issues regarding being a woman. And yet, all of my best-loved authors as a young girl had been female – Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery – but my current favorites are almost exclusively men.
Furthermore, I haven’t read a book by a woman in ages. I hadn’t felt a wee bit guilty about these things until the conference. I hadn’t thought about them at all, actually. Ms. Calman runs a literature seminar for adults that focuses almost exclusively on books by women published a year or two prior. I read books from the past seven centuries, and while a disproportionate amount of authors from that period are men, there’s still a lot of books by women I could read and don’t. I know I have to step up my game.
Towards the end of the discussion, when the panelists were taking questions from the audience, a woman stood up and explained the she was an English professor at a community college. She spoke eloquently about how many of her students, especially the women, are ardently and proudly anti-literary. They see it as a useless pastime for those who, unlike them, don’t have to deal with real life. It made me sad to hear this. I wish everyone could understand that books and real life aren’t necessarily opposed. But as someone who is ardently and proudly pro-literary, I guess I could appreciate that a little better myself. And so, the next book I read will definitely be by a female author. And a lot more after that.