Why Feminism?: In response to a colleague who has never heard of Rebecca Solnit (and #metoo)

Yesterday, I passed by my colleague’s office and he mentioned that he was going to give a lecture to his class on the #metoo campaign and the sexual harassment and violence against women issue that has exploded in the media.

I asked him if he’d read Rebecca Solnit’s work.

He replied, “Who?”

I explained that she is pivotal to all the feminist changes afoot right now. Five years ago, feminist was a taboo word. Now it’s all the rage, and “mansplaining” (her word) is common parlance.

Had he heard of Solnit’s, “Men Explain Things to Me?” I asked.

“No.”

Had he read or heard of Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Why We Should All Be Feminists?

“Who? Uh. No.”

He scrambled to write their names down.

He later wrote me a thank you note for giving him these authors’ names.

I applaud my colleague’s interest, but I wonder: why hadn’t he heard of these authors prior to our conversation? This man reads the New York Times and other key publications daily.

I wrote my colleague back and recommended that he begin with Solnit’s essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” (and the book of the same name). I suggested that he give the essay to his class to read. I recommended This Bridge Called My Back and Feminism is for Everybody, as well as these two lists of writing by African and black feminists:

18 Phenomenal African Feminists to Know and Celebrate
by Moiyattu Banya What is African Feminism? Many feminists from around the world have contested the idea of whether…www.forharriet.com

14 Books That Should Be On Every Black Feminist's Bookshelf
Feminism has been getting a lot of attention lately in popular media, and the more people use the term, the more…www.matermea.com

***

My entry.

First, I was a little girl and sexual assault was everywhere. You know the story. We all do.

Then, I was a young woman in the theatre (acting), at parties, working in restaurants, in college; sexual assault was everywhere. You know the story. We all do.

Then, I got my PhD and I started teaching feminist criticism and literature in the 1990s. At the time, my focus was on 18th-century English literature and culture — and mostly on women writers who were famous in their day— such as Aphra Behn, Mary Astell, Maria Edgeworth, Frances Burney, Mary Delariviere Manley (and others). You probably haven’t heard of them. They were wiped out of the literary canon because of their bawdiness (open sexuality) and their deep questioning of patriarchy. They addressed rape, domestic violence, venereal disease, women’s (lack of) education, female desire, same-sex desire, racism, & female inequality (legally and in every way) in their writing.

When I went on the job market as a young female PhD to apply for university teaching jobs, the majority of my interviewers were white men with white hair. It was uncomfortable. I was told I was intimidating. I was told they felt their academic fields were being invaded by strange and unfamiliar studies (feminism and women writers).

When I began teaching as a young scholar/professor, I had to fight to teach courses on 18th-century women writers. If I split my course readings in half (half women, half men), I was told I wasn’t teaching the true 18th-century. I was supposed to stay in line and teach Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe, etc. The 18th-century has been defined by scholars as the Age of Reason for a reason. Women have never been reasonable, it seems- they question the very foundations of rational thought. They raise messy corporeal, class, and political questions. Their language on the page (often) unsettles everything.

The story of the erasure of the 18th-century women writers (there were 100 great women novelists before Jane Austen — according to Dale Spender) was central to my area of research — yet late 20th-century male professors told me that teaching women writers was invalid, not scholarly.

When I later switched my field to contemporary literature and film/media, with a focus on environmental issues, and in particular on eco-feminism, I met with even more disdain from my colleagues. I became the defacto department weirdo. This was about 2003. Few were talking about climate change or environmental degradation in academic humanities circles then. Public environmental scholarship — books such as Bill McKibben’s End of Nature, Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream, or Solnit’s Savage Dreams, were not well known in the academic world. Crunchy/environmentally aware places with hippy professors like UC Santa Cruz covered these works perhaps, but they were not “recognized” in mainstream colleges or universities in literature classrooms.

I plodded on as the Department feminist and eco-feminist weirdo. I knew that the environment was crumbling in so many ways, and that my students needed to learn about toxicants, disease, and pollution, eco-feminism, environmental injustice, and climate change.

Repeatedly, students have said the following to me, “Why haven’t we been taught about these issues before? It’s our right to know!”

Sometimes we dance. Sometimes we meditate. Sometimes we march. Sometimes we walk in forests or by the shore and write about the trees and water and animals and birds. We read poetry, essays and novels about the environment, gender, race. Always we tie these issues together: violence against women, environmental racism, and the grave harm humans have done and are doing to our earth.

Students cried in class after Superstorm Sandy; they had witnessed hundreds of felled trees, boats washed up in their front yards, looting and guns at gas stations.

My students talked to me and cried after Trump’s election — they were afraid of what would happen to them because of their female gender, or because of the color of their skin, or because of their ancestry.

They come to me in tears after they have been diagnosed with cancer, or their mother or relative has been diagnosed with cancer. They know it has everything to do with our poisoned water, soil and air — the superfund site next door.

They worry about our National Parks, species extinction, climate change, and nuclear war.

***

One student’s project: she went into various online chat rooms and asked the question:

“What do you think of feminism?”

Over and over she received the response: “fuck feminism.”

***

In some ways: the walls of patriarchy are crumbling. Women are being heard. Many assaulters are being called to accountability.

Yet.

I don’t trust this moment in time. I’ve been harassed (grabbed, assaulted, verbally insulted, glass ceilinged) like all of my sisters in the world of #metoo.

No, I can’t fully trust this heightened moment of #metoo, when we have a pussy-grabbing president wagging a big nuclear phallus (thousands on hair tigger alert) at North Korea.

***

What do I make of an older male colleague who is only now waking up to the idea of feminism?

I am very glad he is reading Solnit. But where has he been?

***

(This is not merely a hyped up feminist media campaign. This is hundreds (or thousands) of years of women being shut down in every way — violated, raped, trafficked, owned, silenced, burned, shot, strangled, starved, and prevented from being educated, prevented from ownership of property, prevented from the right to vote, and more. Let’s treat the #metoo stories as sacred prayer.)