This week’s poem, by Peggy Cooke, explores the fear of being “caught out” for not having read the right books or knowing the right vocabulary. It’s a fear that, I imagine, any of us who have been in school or — well, just about any insider/outsider situation — can relate to. One of the strongest examples I have from my own childhood, actually, is church. Growing up in a town saturated with protestant Christianity I witnessed first hand the multiple types of Christian discourse that completed with one another in a single geographic area (and sometimes in a single church or worship service!) for authority. We had the theologians with seminary training and the parishoners who placed a premium on personal revelation and a born-again relationship with God. We had the folks who’d been born into the church and those who were converts. And you could see, over the course of a Sunday School class or a Sunday morning service how all of these difference vocabularies vied with one another, and the interpersonal dynamics as one group or another felt out-authorized by another.
It happens in feminist spaces too, just as much as in any other.
MY SECRET a poem by Peggy Cooke (pp. 135-136)
An excerpt, lines 24-35):
I stood on a rooftop
Hand in hand with a Dominican boy
We looked out over the Free Trade Zone
And I knew then, at 17
What those smokestacks meant
For his future and for mine
I knew then about privilege
About my white skin, the place of my birth
The million lucky coincidences that made me able
To turn around and leave
And made the opposite true for him
Feminism is not my major
It is my story
This poem, in the context of the other pieces in Feminism For Real (and our wonderful, varied conversations about the book) prompted me to think about the different ways in which people learn. The different ways in which people come to awareness about their place in the world we inhabit. We’ve had a lot of discussion, during this live-blogging series, about the relative merits of “theory” and “practice,” or feminism inside versus outside academe. This poem reminded me of all the different ways in which people can come to awareness. I think, given the wide range of learning styles humans develop, the question is rarely either/or but instead might be framed as a both/and … in that some folks develop their feminist muscles best outside of a major — while for other people, it is academic feminism that galvanizes them to awareness and action.
A personal example that I’ve shared (I think?) before in this space: It took me reading Shere Hite’s report on female sexuality before I was able to really connect with how my body was experiencing arousal, and figure out how to orgasm. Hanna laughs (gently, kindly) at me because of this: to someone with a more kinetic, experiential learning pattern it seems ludicrous that I would a) need a written description of orgasm, and how to get there, in order to come — isn’t it just something that everyone learns physically? — and b) that written description would be enough to help me make that leap. Admittedly followed by physical practice, but it was the narratives, the words, that communicated to me what I should be paying attention to. It was the language that allowed me to make the intuitive leap.
It’s hard in our culture of dichotomies and hierarchies not to think in terms of “superior,” “more authoritative,” or “more authentic” when we are talking about ways of learning and doing feminism(s). But as I get deeper and deeper into Feminism For Real, and I listen to peoples’ struggles with theory and academe, I find myself thinking about the value of theory and scholarship (though perhaps not institutional education, but perhaps that discussion another day!) specifically for those of us who connect emotionally and physically to the world through words.
Ideas are a literal turn-on for me. In that talking ideas can make me, physically, hot and bothered. Classroom spaces have been known to connect me to my physical self in ways that were unparalleled before I was in a sexually intimate relationship. For someone like me, intellectual discussion can act like a massage or a five-mile run or a mutually-enjoyable flirtation. Feminist author (theorist, activist) bell hooks talks about this dynamic in her essay “Eros, Eroticism, and the Classroom” (published in Teaching to Transgress). It’s not necessarily about being sexual in the classroom — but about acknowledging that we are bodies in scholastic space. And paying attention to the ways our embodiment shape how we learn.
All of these are unfinished thoughts, but I think what I’m feeling my way towards is the question of why people feel the need to push back so strongly against book learning as something that is not “real” feminism, that isn’t “lived” feminism — when for some of us, it is actually the space in which we connect to how we live. Rather than giving us distance from our lives, book learning is what plugs us in to the here-and-now. It’s what helps us make meaning.
If I had to hazard a guess as to why so many folks push back, it’s because we live in a kyriarchy that privileges that kind of learning (sometimes, in some spaces). And we also live in a society that simultaenously has a disdain for scholastic enterprise (“the ivory tower”) and puts those with professional credentials on a pedestal above those who have experiential know-how but lack the paperwork to prove their expertise.
Mmm. A pedestal. Sound familiar? Kinda like that pedestal upon which (white, middle-class) women got placed in the True Womanhood paradigm? Or the pedestal upon which we place infants and children (lavishing attention on them as accessories, affording them little actual respect as human beings)?
Join me next time for further exploration of this pedestal/disdain dichotomy with Diandra Jurkic-Walls’ essay “Mistakes I Didn’t Know I was Making: Or, a portrait of a feminist as a young academic’, or even, ‘Battlestar Academica’: A short essay about my time at grad school where I was trained to come up with long witty titles for my writing (among other things)” (pp. 137148).