When Gender Studies Professors Leave the Classroom

I have been writing about social justice issues for over four years now. When I began, I was a mother of a five-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, a wife and stay-at-home mother, a former technical writer and current part-time professor making a fraction of what I used to make. I was also a former girl and young woman with plenty of personal experience with sexism, but none with racism or classism. I hadn’t thought much about being white, aside from the fact that my whiteness made me feel guilty and uncomfortable and I didn’t want to think about it much—and I took being middle-class absolutely for granted. I identified myself as female and heterosexual, and I knew I wanted to be a writer, but mostly I thought of myself as a mother. The identity of mother had been so all-consuming and overwhelming that I’d lost self to it, and I wanted the self back. I’d lived in four states in thirteen years, had health issues in the last three years, had written five drafts of a novel over a period of six years, and was exhausted. It felt like a time to end—which meant, of course, that it was time to begin.

I had help—people in my life to encourage me, to challenge me, to help me shape my path. So I began. I started to write about sexism, because I knew instinctively that there was a pretty big gap between what I’d been taught—that equality was a done deal—and what I’d experienced. I thought feminism was something scary, mostly because I thought it meant I had to turn men into enemies, and I didn’t see them as enemies. When I encountered Gloria Steinem’s definition of feminism—the full equality and humanity of women and men—I relaxed, and began to dig into anything feminist. When I encountered bell hooks’ definition—a movement to end sexist oppression—my consciousness expanded further. In four years, it’s expanded so much that I define myself primarily as an educator rather than a student (though part of being an educator, of course, is continuous learning). I’ve taught a women’s and gender studies course, spoken about making feminism mainstream on the radio, published articles on feminist subjects. I’ve read widely in the field, written two book proposals, and am actively seeking an agent. In the classroom, I’m an expert. In an everyday conversation—I’m still an expert, but people I interact with don’t always recognize my expertise. And that is one hell of a problem.

When people who are experts in social and cultural analysis are not understood as experts who have vital information that can help change our society for the better, years of work toward equality are dismissed. It’s as if women’s studies never existed—as if women’s history never existed, as if the collective sweat, blood, and tears of every person who has inched civil rights forward has simply evaporated. The reason for this erasure of expertise is that we think personal experience—being a person who lives in a society—is the only requirement for understanding social structures. Personal experience does inform our understanding, and is important—but human experience must be understood within human society. The framework that feminists and other social justice workers have struggled to define for centuries must be seen as relevant within our mainstream culture—rather than simply something that a few people learn in a classroom—or those centuries of work are irrelevant for masses of people.  Making feminist consciousness irrelevant in mainstream culture means that the wheel is constantly reinvented, which ensures its revolutions are slow indeed.

I am tired.

I will not stop, but I am tired.

Feminist work always—always—requires deep personal work. The two go hand in hand. When feminists ask others to do deep personal work, we know exactly what we are asking, because we are doing it ourselves. We are laying the groundwork for change. And we are doing so with the full force of every change that has already come behind us, preparing humanity for the next phase, like the waves of labor. We are doing this work as experts with a framework and vocabulary to offer that, while it is difficult and challenging and sometimes frightening, ultimately offers liberation. To everyone.

If we are to be heard, we must be understood—on social media, in the news, in community spaces—as people with a body of knowledge that others do not have. We must be educators not just in the classroom, but in the streets. Otherwise, the blueprints for the steps we must take, individually and collectively, toward equality will be erased, the entire conversation about equality reduced to tomato, tomahto.

And you know what happens then—we call the whole thing off.

2 thoughts on “When Gender Studies Professors Leave the Classroom

  1. diahannreyes says:

    Thanks for this. I’m inspired to hear about how you evolved yourself into the work you are doing now.

    You also address something that I struggle with. I sometimes feel like what I know that can help bring about change doesn’t easily fit into the frameworks that exists for having such conversations. It feels like having to learn new vocabulary -even though its still English- to be able to even engage in such dialogues and be taken seriously. Part of me also wonders though if beyond that is that it’s as u say:

    “The framework that feminists and other social justice workers have struggled to define for centuries must be seen as relevant within our mainstream culture—rather than simply something that a few people learn in a classroom—or those centuries of work are irrelevant for masses of people.”

    Not so much about a personal lack but about trying to communicate using old paradigms and structures.


  2. Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

    Thanks, Diahann–you have touched on something that I’ve experienced as well, the sense that there is so much to learn when you enter the conversation. Feminism is, after over forty years of academic development, very much a discourse community with its own jargon and concepts. It’s also continually evolving, and much of that evolution is happening in online spaces, where there is struggle and often disagreement. It can be a bit overwhelming. The book I am working on–American Sexism: Questions and Answers–will include a glossary of terms, and build a bridge between our mainstream understanding of sexism and intersecting forms of discrimination and the feminist understanding of patriarchy. As I’ve built this understanding, I’ve sometimes had to learn to give myself a break–we are all evolving in the work, and showing up and listening to each other is such a huge part of it.

    I really appreciate your thoughtful comments and the way you’ve engaged with my process, and I’ve very much enjoyed learning about yours as well!


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