It’s taken me far too long, but I finally finished Deborah Siegel’s immensely engaging Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild. Deborah is a wonderful writer, and she’s produced the most readable summary of the last forty years of intra-feminist conflict that I’ve seen in print. I may find a way to work it into a syllabus sometime in the next year or two.
At times, Siegel visits a similar theme to the one Astrid Henry explored in Not My Mother’s Sister, a book I reviewed here. Read together, Henry and Siegel offer a sobering account of how the conflict between so-called “Second” and “Third” wave feminists emerged and has continued to play out. Both books were, of course, written well before Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House formally began, but the issues raised by her campaign make the two texts (particularly, perhaps, Siegel’s) seem positively prescient.
But what I was keenly aware of as I finished Deborah’s book was the degree to which intra-generation feminist conflict facilitates male privilege. Specifically, it facilitates my privilege as a male gender studies professor.
I don’t spend a lot of time in my women’s studies classes dwelling on my own maleness. I may have a robust ego, but I draw the line at a kind of pedagogical narcissism that invites the students to reflect at length on their feelings about the professor. Still, there’s no point ignoring my maleness, any more than there’s any point ignoring my whiteness or my age. We teach, after all, as embodied persons. All those who can see or hear (and all of my students can do at least one of these tasks) can sense that a man is teaching women’s studies. I’m not the only man in academia doing it (read my tribute to David Allen), but I am the only one doing it at Pasadena City College. It’s appropriate to create a forum where students can question whether a man can or should be teaching feminism to a predominantly female class, and I try and do that at least once a semester.
But the depressing thing is, some women enroll in my class primarily because they’d rather have women’s history taught to them by a man. Time and again, I’m told by my students — at the beginning of the semester — that they believe “a male teacher will be less biased” or that “a man is less likely to impose his own bitterness on the material.” (Both are direct quotes from students last semester.) Of course, I gently but firmly call my students out on their prejudice, and use their assumption of male objectivity as a lesson about the enduring power of sexism. I point out, teasingly, that our culture sends a remarkably mixed message about men in authority. On the one hand, we are all said to have a “hidden sexual agenda” because after all we are “all dogs” who “think with our dicks.” On the other hand, that same maleness that apparently makes us helplessly predatory also makes us, in the popular sexist imagination, more rational and less inclined to bias. That’s a hell of a contradiction to reconcile!
But there’s another dynamic at play. As both Siegel and Henry point out, contemporary feminism is often fraught with generational conflict. Even if my students aren’t entirely familiar with the distinctions between Second and Third Wave feminism, they are often acutely aware of the complex and charged relationships that exist between older and younger women. Most of them learned what it means to be a woman from older women, usually — but not always — their own mothers. Some of them were raised by feminist moms, others by mothers who embraced traditional chauvinism, but virtually all had their views about women’s potential and women’s role described and prescribed by older women. As a male professor, I’m almost certainly not going to remind my female students of their mothers, or of the other older women whom they’ve had in their life giving them advice and direction.
Even for those students who do have a clear understanding of the difference between Second and Third Wave feminism, my status as a man allows me to “stand outside” what is so often perceived as a bitter intra-woman struggle (a struggle, as I mentioned, that was intensified by the Obama-Clinton primary battle.) Regardless of whether I am more objective than my female feminist colleagues or not, my maleness positions me as a kind of “neutral observer” of the emotionally charged battles that go on between different generations of women. This is unearned male privilege at its most obvious.
Of course, lots of students have “father issues” too. College students — particularly, but not exclusively first-generation college students — tend to parentify their professors. As I’ve aged, this has become more and more obvious. (A few years ago, I started receiving occasional Father’s Day cards and emails from students. Though these messages made me old, they were very touching and very welcome. Usually they were along the lines of “Thank you for being like a Dad to me”, or even more heart-breaking, “Thank you for being a better father figure to me than my own Dad was.” I got my first such note about four years or so ago, and I’ve gotten two or three — or more — every year since. These messages always manage to depress and elate me simultaneously: I’m sad about the poor relationship so many of my students have with their own fathers, and I am flattered and honored and moved by the privilege of getting to play such a positive role in the lives of so many young people.)
I’m 41 years old, four times married, and childless. If I were a female professor and self-identified feminist, I know perfectly well that a great many of my younger students would connect my private life very explicitly to my feminism. No one has ever said to me “I bet you got divorced three times because you were a feminist.” (!) But, given our stereotypes about women who embrace feminism, I’m quite confident that if I were a woman, many of my students would assume that it was my political views that “drove men away.” I may be childless at 41, but the only time my students and mentees bring that up is to ask if I’m planning to have children “any time soon.” I get lots of nice compliments about how I’ll be a “great father”. If I were a childless woman in her early forties, however, I know that some of my students — the sort who are already suspicious about feminism — would connect my lack of fecundity to my politics. For those students who dream of being Moms “someday”, they might easily correlate feminism with rejecting motherhood. That’s not fair, of course, and it’s inaccurate, but it’s the sort of thinking that a lot of young people engage in. As a man, I don’t face that sort of prejudice.
There’s only so much that I can do as a male professor to combat these stereotypes. And yes, I’ve got plenty of work to do combatting the classic slurs directed at men in gender studies: that we are all filled with self-loathing, or “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” At the same time, men in the feminist world need to cop to the extraordinary privilege we enjoy, even in the most egalitarian of circles. And we must be especially careful to avoid assuming the role of the “neutral observer”, the one who “rises above” the often difficult, painful and infuriating inter-generational conflicts in the feminist community. That doesn’t mean we have to take sides in a battle that is, at least some of the time, exaggerated in its intensity by a media eager to see women divided. It does mean that we need to acknowledge our privilege where it exists and claim our complicity when we become aware of it. And we must reject, every time, the poisoned chalice of male “objectivity.”