A Barnard Panel on Adult Education Educates a Teen

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.

7 thoughts on “A Barnard Panel on Adult Education Educates a Teen

  1. I can totally relate with your feeling of guilt when you look back and see that men are the authors to some of your favorite books. When I read books by white authors I feel a sense of guilt because I am not reading books by black authors. I find myself hiding the cover of my book if there are white characters on the front, for fear that I will be looked upon as a white black-girl on the 3 train going home to Harlem. When I read books by Toni Morrison or Sister Souljah or even today, reading “Girls Like Us” by Rachel Lloyd, I feel a sense of pride. You’re right, we cannot be at fault that most of the classic books are written by males, especially white males, but when we read books reflecting some part of ourselves, whether it is race, sexuality, or gender, it is affirming.

  2. The part of your post, “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” really made me think. I have never really had a strong position on the topic, but this sentence makes me feel strongly all of a sudden. I completely agree with you that doing something just for the sake of doing it often is not a good idea, that being said I adamantly believe that it is possible to have the best of both worlds: a diverse and high quality canon. Thanks for giving such great insight into the panel you attended!

  3. A panel where they are talking about mostly being a woman? I don’t understand? They did not really talk about oppression? What did they talk about then? Us as women have so much going on!

  4. I completely understand where you were coming from when you said, “Was my stance against the politicization of literature a betrayal of my sex? Does it make me unfeminist? Antifeminist? 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.” I feel that we all at some point have done or said something that would go against the “feminist” ways because we have grown up in this society and have had its views embedded in us. For example, when we are talking about a sample essay in class, everybody always automatically says he before even knowing whether or not the author is male or female….its inevitable.

  5. I found your post to be very interesting because you bring up a lot of questions about the panel which you attended and how it relates to you. I liked how you brought your readers into your thinking process as the conference was going on, letting us feel what you did. I definitely agree with this part of your post, “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… My point involves placing the sanctity of academia over the importance of diversity,” and how that raises questions about whether or not you have the wrong priorities and are against your own sex.

  6. I’m intrigued by your line: “Furthermore, the brand of feminism the panel discussed was concerned less with oppression and power, and more with simply being a woman.” Even within feminist literary criticism, the concern with “being a woman” has to do with exploring oppression and power within the world of a literary narrative. I definitely encourage you to read Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s classic text The Madwoman in the Attic, which was one of the first major pieces of literary criticism to explore this very issue.

    I also suggest reading Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, which was also a major influential piece of feminist literary criticism. Both take on the issue of the “phallic” pen in literature and how issues of gender, even within literature, almost always has to do with issues of power. I read both of these books in high school and it opened an entire world to me about how feminist analysis could be applied to literature and culture. I think you would enjoy them very much as a starting point for entering this particular field.

    I’m particularly impressed with the revelation you had about wanting to read more books by women and that you realized you had not read that many women authors before–even though you have read a great deal about women’s history. I’m glad that we’ll be reading Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in this course, as I think you’ll find much in that text to explore regarding women’s writing and its relation to education, access, equity, as well as oppression and power.

    Even the quote by Rotskoff that to read a book by a woman is a “feminist project” and that it’s a “feminist project to be and create an audience for these books” is a part of the larger analysis of power within the context of talking about the literary canon as well as the larger analysis of talking about the market that buys and sells books by women. Of course, we also need to be mindful about which books we are talking about—as not all books by women are feminist and not all women are feminists. So it begs the question: is reading a book by a woman always a feminist project? And if it is, what kind of feminist project? What kind of resistance does it pose to the canon? These are questions I hope you explore in this course and in your writing. It would be very exciting to hear your thoughts.

    The last thing I want to address is your reference to Harold Bloom. I used to read a great deal of his work when I was in college, and have always found his theory of the “anxiety of influence” a particularly interesting one to talk about in reference to how some of literary history has evolved; though, I do find it limiting in terms of talking about all literature. His book The Western Canon, came out when I was in college. I remember reading it with great interest but was ultimately disappointed. I remember asking myself: Why does he consider some works “lesser” than others? What is a “lesser” text? Why is it that so often works written by women and people of color are labeled “lesser,” and why do critics like Bloom feel that they are not canon-worthy? What are the criteria for a great text? Who makes these criteria? And who has the power to do so? Is that power based on race, class, and gender? It would be great for you to explore these questions as we continue in the course.

    I also think many of these questions circle back to your original meditation on whether reading literature by women has to do with oppression and power or just about gender. I think it’s all three. I’m excited to see how your thinking evolves throughout the course, and am particularly interested to see how you will respond to Woolf. Be sure to bring up Bloom in those discussions and we’ll see where it takes us. Onward!

  7. I want to start off by saying, I’m pretty jealous I couldn’t go.

    It’s very interesting that feminism continues to be seen as a topic that is reserved for “adults” and discussions of how to implement the ideas into curriculum for young people is almost never discussed. I think a part of the reason is that a lot of feminism is theory that is pretty difficult to chew at times and rarely simplified. I think a way to make feminism less esoteric is by simplifying it so that almost anyone can understand the reasoning behind the theory.

    In regards to the literature aspect of it, I’m always torn between whether to read *because* they are female or to read a different book that interests me by topic.

    I definitely feel like you’ve brought up some really good questions.

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