February 24, 1999
Mary Ann Travis
As the class of '42 meets Queen Latifah, a group of Newcomb Alumnae learn that language and feminism go to the heart and soul of women's studies. Last Fall, Alice Dayries Manson (N '42) discovered the angry rap resistance of Queen Latifah and Ani DiFranco. And much to her surprise, she found some common ground between herself and the rap artists.
Their rhythms might not quite be in sync, but Manson sounds like she could be singing a decorous backup to DiFranco's hard-edged lyrics when she says, "How ridiculous it has been! As far as how restricted things have been for women."
Manson and half a dozen other Newcomb alumnae whose graduation years range from 1942 to 1983 tuned into the likes of DiFranco as part of a fall non-credit course at Newcomb designed to introduce them to the far flung, interdisciplinary reach of women's studies.
Instigated by Newcomb dean Valerie D. Greenberg and supported by the Newcomb Alumnae Association, the six-week class was taught by Susan Tucker (N '71), curator of books and records at the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. Tucker assigned as arduous range of readings from historian, psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, poets and novelists -- all dealing with women's plight, identity and place in the world.
Visual aids for the class includes MTV videos of the female rap singers and photographic images from fashion and teen magazines. And class members joined in wide-ranging discussions about many things, including what women are called. Manson, a psychology major, mother of seven children and special education teacher, still gets indignant when she recalls that Newcomb psychology professor Dorothy Seago was called "Miss" Seago while the male professors, as a matter of course, were called "Dr." Seago had the same doctoral degree as the male teachers.
"Did you ever know a male professor with a PhD who was not called 'Doctor So-and-So?' "Manson asks. "It was always 'Miss' for the women professors. It's this kind of thing that got me to take this course because I was bugged by this long before Betty Friedan said anything." (Friedan is the author of The Feminine Mystique, the 1963 book that set off the "women's liberation" movement in the popular media.)
Getting steamed about how women are addressed might at first glance seem petty--and might account in some part for the scorn with which people often seem to react initially to women's studies. But as the class learned, deconstructing language forms the crux of women's studies as an academic discipline. "We don't have any other way of thinking, but in language," says Tucker.
Women's studies is very much about language, Tucker explains, because "it is through language that we read and understand our culture." "What women's studies does is examine the unconscious structures of society. We ask, how do we know what we think we know?" Unconsciously, through language, Tucker told the class, we assume an understanding of the world. Unwittingly, we try to describe reality.
So, the first thing you learn in a womens studies class is the power of language--and that the inequity of the diminutive "Miss" and the lofty "Dr." does matter. The next thing you learn is that women's studies shifts the paradigms for understanding what makes the world go round. Hear the new beat.
In womens studies, you look at culturehigh and low, including popular culture as presented in magazines, TV and movies as well as "high" culture in academic studies and serious literature.
As feminists--and there's a word--have deconstructed language, they have discovered that the male experience is the cultural norm and the female experience is the un-norm or, perhaps worse--the unknown or the Other. To illustrate our language and cultural biases, Tucker posed this riddle to the class: "What's wrong with this statement: People will not give up power. They will give up money, their wives, anything, but not power." The class members were stumped. A discussion about power ensued. Is power money? How the statement was askew didn't dawn on anyone at first.
Then Tucker put forth the riddle's punch line: "People are men. Because only men have wives." Class members only nodded. Later, Tucker says it's not surprising that they didn't get the joke right away. What happens to most of us, she explains, is that we automatically consider that the people of action in the world are men.
She says, "People here are assumed to be men who have wives. The statement does not consider that people having power in the first place, or money, or a helpmate in a spouse, might be women."
But Tucker is sympathetic to those who don't hear sexist language. She says she even slips herself. "Sometimes, I'll be speaking and those things just come out. It's the way we're taught to think. Language is something you can't change completely in a lifetime." And some just don't see the point of trying to change it.
For example, Maude Saunders Sharp (N '55), a history major and mother of three, says about the word man, "I feel perfectly comfortable included in that." One of the driving forces behind last fall's special Newcomb course was Harriet Barry Schupp (N '58, G '70). "Women's studies is helpful because I think we all need to think more about who we are," she says. "We all should be more self-examining. I think women's studies makes one do that."
Schupp, who has long been active in Newcomb alumnae affairs, encouraged Dean Greenberg to arrange the class because she thought women who had been out of college for a number of years didn't have a sense of what women's studies is.
Schupp was pleased with the course and says that it "demystified some of the feminist language." Women's studies is a valid field of academic study, Schupp believes, "because it requires thinking. That's what liberal arts education is really about--learning to think critically." Where Schupp begs to differ with feminist writers is with their anger. Unlike Manson and some others in the class, she won't buy into an ounce of anger or a smidgen of feeling oppressed. "I have not been oppressed," she maintains. "I have never seen myself as oppressed. And I love being a woman."
Wife, mother and real estate broker, Schupp says she fights against limitations but prefers to think in terms of what to her are genderless qualities like kindness, intelligence, patience, creativity and orderliness. "We are all children of God," she says. She thinks her Newcomb education--its exclusivity and its rigor--gave her and her classmates a position of strength to weather the women's liberation storm.
"Gender is not my main identification," she says. Not wanting to be bound by gender, Schupp says she has more in common with her male friends from Tulane than with women of a lower economic status. And she probably does, says Susanne Dietzel, visiting assistant professor of women's studies.
Current studies in women's issues, Dietzel says, recognize that women of a particular class or social position are not oppressed in the same way as women of color or of lower socioeconomic classes. Privileged women, in fact, might themselves unconsciously oppress women of different races and lower economic levels. "What privileged women may lack is a basis on which to understand the oppression of other women who are oppressed because of their class or race or gender," says Dietzel.
That's where feminism comes in, or feminist theory, to be exact. What we learn from Dietzel is that there are different types of feminism; it is not a monolithic ideology. There is also a difference between feminism as it exists in the real world and feminism as it exists in academia. Real-world feminism can be divided into three types: liberal, radical and cultural, says Dietzel. Liberal feminism is the feminism of the National Organization of Women and the Equal Rights Amendment.
"Liberal feminism is a reform movement," says Dietzel. "It assumes that for all practical purposes men and women are the same; they are equal. And now we need to create within the social system the conditions that will ensure women's equality." Liberal feminism has been successful, says Dietzel, particularly with affirmative action, which has helped white, professional women more than any other group.
One of the reasons for liberal feminism's success, says Dietzel, is that "it doesn't challenge the self-conception of women. It doesn't ask a woman to necessarily see herself as oppressed. It doesn't pose a threat to what some people call the sex-gender system or other people call the patriarchy." The rule of men and the persistence of male values throughout society are not challenged by liberal feminism, says Dietzel. Radical feminism is another branch of real-world feminism. It's probably the feminism from which Schupp most wants to disassociate herself.
"Radical feminism is based upon the notion that women are oppressed in society because of their gender," says Dietzel. Radical feminists were angry. These are the feminists about which Schupp says, "Those early feminist writers of 30 years ago were so angry, so locked into discovering that one is female and, therefore, one has all this baggage of limitations and activities and concepts."
Schupp could not go along with them. And neither could the majority of American women. Says Dietzel, "Radical feminism has met its demise." Radical feminism says it is the experience of "womanhood that brought women down," says Dietzel. While it politicized the everyday and theoretically allowed women to make coalitions across race and class, radical feminism forgot to look at difference. Radical feminism forgot to ask, for example, says Dietzel, "how the experience of the African-American woman is different from that of the white, middle-class woman. "Radical feminism had its moment," says Dietzel. "But the time is over." Earth mothers unite.
As radical feminism withered in the 1970s and '80s, Dietzel says, the feminist community gathered together to hone cultural feminism. Cultural feminists said, let's build a culture and institutions that serve women only. Feminist presses, feminist coffeehouses, feminist music festivals, feminist theater and feminist dance groups are all part of cultural feminism. So is the surge of interest in feminist spirituality, including the emerging goddesses religions and eco-feminism, all touting the spiritual superiority of women.
And there's the rub for Dietzel, Tucker and other critical-thinking feminists. "Cultural feminism is problematic," says Dietzel, "because the philosophies that undergird it say that women are morally superior, and because women have traditionally been nurturers, they are just better people." Dietzel says, in fact, nurturing has often held women back, and cultural feminism's glorification of women's nurturing role and its grounding of women in the body only reinforces traditional gender roles that have been used to oppress women for centuries.
Women's moral superiority is an argument that has been used before in the cause of women's rights, and Dietzel doesn't want to go there any more. The suffragettes around the turn of the 20th century used it in their struggle to get the right to vote. "Suffragettes said they were morally superior to newly freed blacks and immigrants off the boat," Dietzel says. "They said to offset that kind of whiskey-male vote, we need the vote of white, educated, middle-class women."
Dietzel would not like to see this kind of moral high ground replicated. "It's detrimental," she says. "There's more to woman than the body. The mind-body dualism is one of the ways in which the genders are divided and in which society is stratified."
While cultural feminism's women-centered institutions provide alternatives to the male-centered mainstream for women looking for support, they also tend to perpetuate valuing woman's body rather than her mind. Dietzel adds a fourth form of public feminism, the "I am not a feminist, but. . ." viewpoint. This is the attitude of many young women today "who have been raised with lots of accomplishments, real and perceived, that feminism has made in the public sphere," Dietzel says.
But these young women also have grown up during a time of "virulent backlash," which is evident in mainstream media and in films like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct and documented by Susan Faludi's book, Backlash. "The anti-feminist backlash was so obvious with Anita Hill," says Dietzel. "It taught young women an important lesson. No matter how smart you are, how well you play the game, the nine men that make up the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and their millions of cohorts are still not going to believe you. They are still going to put you down."
Easy for Dietzel to get riled up. She admittedly is a professional feminist. Teaching womens studies is what she does for a living.
"Women are different" is Dietzel's not-so-startling conclusion. Teasing out the buried and encoded cultural and societal differences between men and women from obvious biological and physical differences is Dietzel's task. "In the academy, we have a smorgasbord of feminist approaches," she says. "It's an ongoing project, to'quote, unquote''dethrone' man as the universal human being."
Members of the Newcomb class were not so interested in dethroning man as they were in protecting motherhood and children. For most class members, it's safe to say, their best role in life was being a mother. "It is a good thing to be a mother," says Dietzel. "Feminism is not against motherhood." For the class members, however, prejudice against the term feminism persists. They voiced concerns that feminism means mothers leaving their children with caregivers they know nothing about, that it means shortchanging precious time with babies and small children.
Childcare is, indeed, an issue that often crops up in women's studies. Most of the class members have grown children. Motherhood has been and is still essential to their self-identity and self-fulfillment. They stayed home when their children were small, supported by their husbands and not working outside the home until later in their lives. Some class members expressed the idea that feminism drives career women to deprive their children of attention and time spent together. They were afraid that children are valued less today. Such views of feminism as anti-motherhood sadden Dietzel.
She says, "If there is a social movement that is pro-motherhood and that seeks to make sure that women get a good experience of motherhood, it's feminism." Like scat singing--improvised syllables sung to a jazz melody--the patterns of women's lives jump and weave all over the place. "I married a very traditional Southern man," says Virginia Niehaus Roddy, (N '60, L '79), another class member.
"I married directly out of college. Women were much less sophisticated in those days--and men, too. We were all like children when we got married. "You married, and you pleased your husband. That was the mindset. You did what everyone else did. The world was so different then. You never rocked the boat. "I think for a lot of people, the men married the women thinking they were little dolls who were pretty and were going to stand on a pedestal forever." But, says Roddy, "Sometimes that pedestal cracks." Women don't want to be dolls. "We want to be treated like real people."
Now a lawyer with a thriving and demanding practice and the mother of two grown sons, Roddy is also a member of the Tulane Board of Administrators. She says her initial reaction to hearing about women's studies was, "Why do you need this?" But Roddy's perspective has changed. "Living alone redefined things for me," she says. She has an interest in women's issues, especially legal and economic ones, and she particularly likes reading biographies of women.
"The important thing to me as far as women is to be able to feel that you as an individual can function, operate, have a good time and live by yourself. Young women do that all the time now," Roddy says. "If you feel good about yourself and you feel self-confident and you know that you could earn a living or be happy by yourself, then you are in a position to make better choices."
If Roddy's statements--and much of the alumnae class discussions (Tucker calls them "experiential musings")--smack of consciousness-raising, that's okay, says Beth Willinger, director of the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women. While academia has in the past frowned on any sort of touchy-feely learning approach, Willinger says that the separation of mental exercise and emotional exercise is, again, one of those false divides--like the mind-body dualism--that women's studies is dismantling.
Much of what we know is from our own experience. In women's studies one's own story may be validated by others who have had similar experiences. That recognition of common personal experiences becomes a way of knowing, says Willinger. Identity issues, the insidious beauty trap, the media's manipulation of women's bodies and the fact that most women live lives circumscribed by economic injustices were among the topics scrutinized by the class. Tucker hopes from these discussions that class members got a "bigger lens to see the world." "I hope they'll remember those Queen Latifah videos," she says. "It's important to be able to look at your culture."
One regret Tucker has is that the older women didn't get to mix in the class with undergraduates. Younger women, Tucker believes, could profit from hearing comments from alumnae like Maude Sharp. "I've always had an identity," said Sharp. "I was always just me--Maude. When you have freckles, you won't be perfect. Bodies are important, but that's not all there is."
Sharp thinks that "gathering information about women's lives is a worthwhile thing to do." But, she'd like to see men in women's studies, too. She doesn't want women's studies to be a "ghetto" for women. "As far as I'm concerned," Sharp says, "we're all in this together."
Tulanian Spring, 1999 Mary Ann Travis is the managing editor of Tulanian.
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org