The Declaration of Sentiments at 165

This coming Saturday, July 20, will mark the 165th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments at the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Most historians choose to mark the beginning of the organized American feminist movement from this moment, which had its antecedents in the abolitionist and temperance struggles that had begun earlier in the nineteenth century. (Parenthetically, I’m feeling old: it seems like five minutes ago that I was talking to my summer school students about the 150th anniversary. Fifteen years have flown by.)

The Declaration is elegant, powerful, and beautiful. Modeled in part on the Declaration of Independence, the document sets forth a list of the various ways in which a male dominated society has deprived women of what is naturally theirs, just as Jefferson’s declaration contained a long list of grievances against the British Crown. And though many issues were on the table at the Seneca Falls convention, the document makes clear that three causes, above all others, were of paramount concern:

1. The Right to Vote
2. The Right to Own Property
3. The Right to Education.

None who signed the document in 1848 would live long enough to see all of these rights won, though we can say with some satisfaction that for the vast majority of American women today, what were once distant goals are now common-place reality. But I always point out to my students that the Declaration of Sentiments wasn’t just concerned with winning political rights for women. It was also a call to transform how women thought about themselves. The last of the grievances listed:

He has endeavored, in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.

In other words, three hallmarks of patriarchal and misogynistic culture are a lack of self-confidence, an absence of self-respect, and an unwillingness on the part of women and girls to embrace independence from men. Read positively, our foremothers at Seneca Falls, eight score years ago, saw that real liberation was not merely about providing political, economic, and educational rights for women — though of course, those rights were indispensable. Real liberation had to be internal as well as external. And what the framers of the Declaration knew was that real freedom for women would and could only come when a culture had been created that was as psychologically empowering as it was politically egalitarian.

Winning rights has proven easier than changing cultural values. The popular culture, with its tyrannical insistence on female physical perfection, has undermined the confidence of (by now) several generations of young American women. The pressure to live up to impossibly high familial and societal expectations has robbed just as many of their self-respect. (An old post on “respect” is here). And 165 years after Seneca Falls, after three successive waves of feminism, we still find ourselves combatting cultural forces that promote the most noxious lie of all: that for women, more so than for men, the most profound happiness is always contingent upon a heterosexual relationship that has been blessed with children. We teach women, in countless ways, the lie that dependency is liberation, that true freedom lies in sublimating your own wants to that of another. We still teach far too many women that the pursuit of self-sufficiency is a recipe for loneliness and isolation, and that in order to have meaning and purpose for one’s life, one must be willing to surrender completely to love and its dictates.

Self-confidence, self-respect, and independence (emotional and economic) are vital feminist concerns. It was 165 years ago on Saturday that the framers of the Declaration of Sentiments first centered these three goals in the struggle for women’s freedom. And though the political goals of 21st century feminism have changed quite a bit from those of 1848, the essential struggle for women’s self-confidence, self-respect, and independence continues. The personal is indeed political, and even more importantly, politics needs to be concerned with the intensely personal. Public freedom is a good, but so too is private happiness. And feminism, at its glorious and transformative best, is concerned with winning both — for women, yes, but, ultimately for all of us.

On Saturday, raise a glass to the women (and their many male allies) who came together 165 years ago this weekend to launch a movement whose achievements have transformed our world for the better, and though the struggle may yet be long, whose final victory is assured.

Navigating Pornography at The Atlantic

I’ve written about my Navigating Pornography course before (I Don’t Need to Know if You Masturbate), but today at the The Atlantic, I give a little overview: I Teach a College Class on How to Think and Talk about Pornography.. Excerpt:

Even more than history lessons and an introduction to feminist debates, my students need and deserve the tools to combat sexual shame. I never ask how many of my students use pornography, nor do I inquire about any of their other sexual habits. A safe classroom environment hinges on respect for students’ right to privacy. I don’t need to pry, however, to hear stories—as I invariably do—about confusion, guilt, and fears of “addiction” to porn. Millennials may be more tolerant of sexual diversity than earlier generations, but many grow up in homes where masturbation—which is, after all, almost inextricably linked with pornography viewing—is still seen as shameful or sinful. Many worry that they watch porn too much, or watch the “wrong kind,” while quite a few have had bitter arguments with romantic partners over the ethics of porn use in a committed relationship.

Students need more than history and theory. They need safe spaces to think through—and in some instances, talk through—their fears, desires, and uncertainties. When it comes to a subject like porn, a safe space means a place where they won’t be judged, mocked, or sexualized regardless of what they reveal. Of course my classroom is not a therapist’s office and I am not a therapist. The safe space they choose to talk through those fears, desires, and uncertainties probably won’t be in class, in front of me and their fellow students. What I want them to take from my class is a vocabulary with which to initiate the conversations so many people find impossible to start. For better or worse, we live in a world seemingly permeated by the pornographic. In such a culture, there are few more valuable skills than the capacity to talk with candor and insight about what turns us on, gets us off, shapes and shames us.

How Teaching Gender Studies Has Changed in 20 Years: Six Short Anecdotal Observations

In my women’s history course this week, I mentioned that the number of male students in my gender studies classes had risen steadily over the years. A student asked what other changes I’d noticed, and though I didn’t have a ready answer, six things eventually came to mind.

At the end of this semester, I’ll have wrapped up my 20th year of teaching at Pasadena City College. Here’s some of what I’ve noticed since 1993:

1. The number of young men interested in gender/sexuality studies/feminism increases every year. When I started teaching women’s history, my first gender studies class, men were 5% of the students. Now, they’re about a third. The homophobia has gone down, as studies have shown; the willingness of young men to talk about feelings seems to grow every year.

2. The number of women who are open and vocal about sexual desire, body image, and raw ambition increases every year. Female students talk openly about masturbation and porn use with a frankness and a self-acceptance that they simply didn’t 10 years ago.

3. The percentage of non-white students in my gender studies classes is increasing faster than in my other courses. When I first started teaching at PCC, the campus was 30% white but my gender studies classes were 50% white. Now the campus is 25% white but whites make up maybe 15-20% of those who take courses like Women’s History, Navigating Pornography, Men and Masculinity.

4. Since the advent of social media, students are noticeably less apathetic and more politically engaged than they were/seemed in the 1990s. First started to see this in 2003 with the anti-war demonstrations that were organized online on campus — now, student activism using multiple platforms is electrifyingly successful.

5. The number of students willing to consider a women’s studies/gender studies major as a viable path has increased enormously. This is the most surprising thing — the number of students wanting to study gender has gone UP since the recession, almost as if there’s this sense that practical majors (business, pre-law) offer little guarantee anyway.

6. Fewer students come in reeking of cigarettes; more come in smelling of pot. When I first started teaching at PCC, you could smoke anywhere you liked outdoors; now we’re virtually smoke free. In the early 1990s, the cops went looking for pot smokers, now we have medical cannabis collectives everywhere and widespread acceptance.

Teaching Sexuality, Respecting Student’s Privacy: Where and How to Draw the Line

My latest at Role/Reboot looks at how we set healthy boundaries in college courses that focus on sexual subjects: I Don’t Need to Know if You Masturbate.

Excerpts:

As college courses on sexuality proliferate, professors across the country are increasingly finding themselves in trouble because of what they’ve shown, asked, or assigned. In separate incidents in April, instructors at Fresno State in California and Appalachian State in North Carolina were each placed on leave, accused of showing “objectionable” sexual material to their students. Last year, a professor at Northwestern University got in trouble for hosting a live sex demonstration (which was optional for students to attend).

It’s not just videos or live presentations that have attracted controversy. Earlier this month, a student at Western Nevada College claimed that her human sexuality professor required students to share their sexual histories in journals, papers, and class discussions. According to Inside Higher Education, “students were asked to describe different types of orgasms and describe how they sexually stimulate themselves, specifically referring to certain parts of the female anatomy.” The professor, Tom Kubistant, promised not to read the explicit journal entries, claiming he would only “scan” his students’ scribblings to make sure they’d actually covered the topic. A federal complaint has been filed against Dr. Kubistant.

The safest places to talk about sex are—not entirely paradoxically—those that are desexualized. When students know that they won’t be mocked, won’t have their privacy invaded, and won’t be the subject of a professor’s prurient interest, they are able to do what we so rarely do in our culture: discuss sex candidly and (almost) fearlessly. The need to feign an insouciance or expertise that they don’t actually feel can slip away. The more students know that their boundaries are respected, the more comfortable they’ll be sharing their stories and listening non-judgmentally to those of their classmates.

Read the whole thing.

Daring to Disappoint: On Choosing Happiness over Obligation

Do the sacrifices of our parents, our ancestors, and our culture constitute obligations? I get that question in one form or another every semester in my women’s history class; my answer is always the same: a qualified but firm no. Rather, personal happiness is gratitude made manifest.

From 2006:

In a comment below last Friday’s post about virginity and expectations, a wonderful former student of mine named Connie writes:

Hugo, my question is this, how do we deal with the pressure of knowing our parents sacrifice so much so that we can succeed?

My parents have always given me everything I ask for and expect nothing in return except that I excel in my academics so that I can be successful, live a good life and help them out when they get old. What frustrates me is that this seems like such a simple request that I should be able to fulfill it with ease. Yet, because the notion seems so simple, there is more pressure and if I can’t do something as simple as studying and getting good grades, I am a failure. Having an education is simply not enough. I have to be at the top of my class. Sometimes I wonder if that’s part of my parents’ paradigm or mine because I am always striving to be the best. I guess I fear letting my parents down if I settle for average and as a result, I let myself down. I just want to be happy but I can’t be unless my parents are. I love my parents immensely and am forever grateful for everything they’ve sacrificed for me, I would just like to prove that to them and give them something in return.

Connie fits into the same demographic of many of the students I’m writing about: the child of Asian immigrants, raised with one foot firmly in this culture and another elsewhere, trying so hard to live up to what are, as she makes clear, intense and sometimes overwhelming expectations.

I’ve thought a lot about what it means to teach feminism to a classroom filled with young women whose parents believe that their daughters owe them something. It took me a long time to come to grips with just how crushing those expectations are that women like Connie describe. (I was fortunate: my parents told me that while they hoped I would do well, they would be perfectly satisfied if I merely earned the "gentlemen’s C".  Yes, when I was at Cal in the late-80s, some folks still used that expression without a trace of irony!)  And while male students from certain working-class or immigrant backgrounds also are hit with the burden of parental expectations for success, they usually get to escape the simultaneous requirement that they be virginal while earning straight As!

For so many young women from these backgrounds, sexual purity is less about a private spiritual decision and more about honoring an obligation to a mother and father who have invariably sacrificed so much so that their daughter could have a "better life."  Most of my first-generation students at the community college are acutely aware of just how hard their parents have worked to give them the chance at an education and a promising career.  Though their parents may or may not have strong religious beliefs, they almost always teach their girls that pre-marital sex represents a threat not merely to their daughter’s personal success but to the well-being of the entire family.  Just as in the most tradition-bound of societies, a daughter’s virginity is still all- too-often powerfully connected to the hopes and dreams and sacrifices of a mother and father who have come so very far and worked so very hard for a better life.

And virginity is also of course a symbol for all of the other things a dutiful and hard-working daughter owes to her parents.  In most traditional cultures, daughters and daughters-in-law will be the primary providers of elder care.  Connie writes that her parents expect her to take care of them when they get old. Of course, they’d probably like her to get married and give them grandchildren.  And if she marries a man from a similar background, his parents may expect their daughter-in-law to care for them when they become elderly.  And she’ll do this while holding down a terrific job of which her parents can be suitably proud, and being an excellent mother to their grandkids.  And somehow, women like Connie describe this as "a simple request"!

So you deny your sexuality through your entire adolescence, and put off sexual relationships until you’re finished with college.   Ideally, you find the husband (whom the ‘rents hope will be from the same ethnic group) just as you begin to climb the corporate (or medical) ladder.  You have kids while somehow holding down the job.  You prepare marvelous meals that reflect the best traditions of your ancestral cuisine, your hair and makeup are immaculate, your body is trim, your husband is kept happy, and two sets of doting grandparents are given well-behaved children.  You then begin to care for those grandparents while still holding down the job, still raising the kids, still cooking the superb whatever from the old recipes, still keeping your husband happy.  Sister, ain’t nothing simple about it!  From a feminist perspective, it looks like one long litany of sacrifice, one long list of obligations, one long reminder that as a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother, one’s happiness is always contingent on the joy one brings to others.

I think I’m fairly close to accurately describing the pressures with which so many of my students contend.  But identifying the problem, and enumerating the pressures, is not the same as offering a workable solution.  And of course, there isn’t an easy solution.  Just as many folks have told me this week that when it comes to my comment policy I can’t please everyone, so too many of my students will have to make the hard choice to either continue to exhaust and deny themselves or to choose to rebel.  And it’s my explicit hope that they will choose the latter.

In advocating rebellion, I am not advocating dropping out.  I’m not advocating reckless or self-destructive personal behavior. I am advocating that these young women begin to ask themselves the hard question: what do I want?   I want them to begin the immensely difficult task of silencing those nagging internal (and external) voices that urge self-denial, endless sacrifice, endless sublimation. I want them to talk to each other, to seek support from other young women in similar straits — to plot strategy, share family war stories, and offer encouragement to take the first tentative steps of feminist rebellion.  This "feminist rebellion" will look different for different women.  For one, it might involve telling Mom and Dad she wants to major in history rather than chemistry or business.  For another, it might involve learning to masturbate — without guilt.  For another, it might involve choosing to move out rather than stay at home as her parents expect.  For another, it might involve bringing home a young man from a different ethnicity.  Or bringing home a girl.  If the parents are Catholic, it might involve becoming a Pentecostal.  Or if parents are Presbyterian, it might involve becoming a Buddhist.  The one thing all of these rebellions will have in common is that they will be small steps towards self-discovery and towards personal growth and joy.

Usually at this point, the young women to whom I’m directing this interrupt me:

Hugo, it’s so easy for you to say all of this!  You’re a man, you’re white, you have no idea just how hard it is to ‘rebel’!  You don’t understand the consequences of what you’re saying; you don’t have any idea of how much guilt I’ll feel if I disappoint my parents!

In one sense, they’re right.  I can’t truly know what it’s like to be a first-generation female college student, carrying the hopes and dreams of my parents and my ancestors on my shoulders, on my heart –or on my hymen.  Sure, I’m privileged in ways that I probably don’t even fully understand.  But I do believe that at the heart of the feminist project is this: women ought to have the right to pursue happiness.  That happiness will manifest differently in the lives of different women; some will find their most sublime joy in marriage and motherhood while others will find it in on an archaeological dig while others will find it in the arms of another woman.  And if feminists can agree on one thing, it’s this: the collective sacrifices of your parents, ancestors, and culture do not trump your own personal right to be happy.

I do not hold this belief in contradiction to my Christian faith.  Rather, it is reinforced by it.  In Matthew 10:35, Jesus makes it clear that service to God is always more important than duty to family:

For I have come to turn  a man against his father,a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law — a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

While Jesus is referring specifically to what it will cost to follow Him, the broader implication is clear: in the final analysis, there are things that matter more than loyalty to one’s parents.  Honoring mom and dad is indeed one of the commandments, but honor is not a synonym for obedience.  The Christian journey is partly about discovering the unique purpose for which we each were made, own’s own unique role in building the Kingdom; the feminist journey is about essentially the same process.  Though both feminism and Christianity are about building community, they are also about an ultimately solitary journey of transformation and joy.  As a Christian and a pro-feminist, a teacher and a youth leader, I want to build community while encouraging young folks to set out on their own personal journeys.

I have no illusions that the feminist project will be an easy one for most of my students.  But the choice, ultimately, is often a stark one: a lifetime trying to live up to a crushing set of obligations or a series of difficult but ultimately liberating confrontations with one’s family.  Those confrontations don’t have to take place all at once; some rebellions will be private and small and secret while others will be major and dramatic.  But in the end, big or small, these rebellions need to happen.  And we who care about feminism, who care about the lives and the happiness of young women, have to not only encourage rebellion, we have to walk with them through it and be with them as they cope with the fallout of telling the truth about their own wants, hopes and desires. To the best of my ability, that’s what I’m trying to do.

In the end. we can comfort ourselves with this: the greatest way we can honor our parents may not be through living up to their hopes and expectations.  The greatest way in which we can honor them is to choose to live lives of personal happiness and public service.  Their sacrifices, like the sacrifices of their parents before them, were not in vain if we reject their values: our personal choice to be happy, even if it scandalizes and bewilders our family, is nonetheless a testament to all that they gave up for us.  Whether our parents accept that or not, we can use that thought to encourage and reassure those who are tormented with guilt or doubt about claiming their own happiness on their own terms.

But it still isn’t easy.

“The Thoughts of Six-Hundred Pounders”: Class, Ambition, and the Privilege to Err

This is an abridged and updated version of a post I wrote in February 2009

Is it irresponsible to tell young people to follow their bliss?

Four weeks into the new semester, my classes are more crowded than ever before, as a changing economy sends more and more people desperate for new skills back to the community colleges for retraining. At the same time, middle-class parents who might once have been able to afford to pay for four years at university for their son or daughter now encourage their kids to spend two years at a far more affordable (if obscenely over-crowded) community college like my own Pasadena City College. And as always happens in an economic downturn, state services are cut at precisely the same moment that demand for those services increases.

In thinking about what we all fear is to be long slow decline in public education — and about the double-dip recession in which we are almost certainly now caught — I think about my role as a gender studies professor and feminist educator. Should how I teach — and what I teach — change, at least in some way, to address the current crisis? I take great pride, and have for years, in the number of my former students who go on to major in Women’s Studies or Gender Studies in part because of what they got out of my classes. I’ve always held that students should major in something they love, rather than something that they think will get them a job. I’ve preached the (at best, optimistic, at worst, criminally misleading) mantra that “If you do what you love, the money will follow.” That was always a questionable proposition, particularly for those students who don’t have access to the kinds of networks which traditionally provide the social and financial capital with which to turn dreams into a sustainable living. Is it even more of a questionable proposition now, as we face what could be a prolonged recession with potentially massive unemployment?

Pursuing Gender Studies as a major is obviously no guarantor of financial security. But neither is a degree in finance; look at the massive layoffs in the banking industry. A career in construction is no more promising, nor a career in real estate. (If I had a dollar for every student I knew who was working on a real estate license during the peak of the housing boom between 2004-06, I’d be able to take an entire class to lunch.) When I was an undergraduate, with the Cold War still the defining global dynamic and with Reagan in office, many people I knew at Cal were studying aerospace engineering. They figured on a never-ending buildup of arms and materiel to confront the Soviet Union; the “smart money” said a career preparing for the defense industry was a sure thing. The Berlin Wall came down five months after I graduated college, and for the next dozen years, aerospace jobs were shed like dog hair. The point is an obvious one: for a student in her late teens, looking ahead to four or five decades in the work force, there is no major at college that will guarantee a steady and reliable income. In times of great instability, a major in something “impractical” like history or women’s studies makes no less sense than anything else. It is not, I insist, irresponsible to point so many undergraduates towards academic gender work.

But I worry that my own privilege may lead me to give poor advice. Continue reading

Male feminists, sex work, and SlutWalk: part two of a conversation with Meghan Murphy

On Monday, I posted the first part of an exchange with Meghan Murphy, a blogger and radio host with the Canadian F Word Feminist Media Collective. I answered five questions she had asked of me, and we each posted the same piece at our respective sites. Predictably, we both attracted critics; some of Meghan’s radical allies were incensed that she would legitimize me by engaging, while some of my liberal/sex-positive friends were equally exasperated with my decision to take part in this dialogue.

In any event, what follows below the cut is the second part of our exchange, in which Meghan responds to five of my questions about male feminists, sex work and SlutWalk. Intercourse and puppy dogs also come up for discussion, though not in the same context. Continue reading

More on tragedy and powerlessness and teaching sexual justice

From Madison to Ras Lanuf to Itamar, from Japan to Côte d’Ivoire, it has been a heartbreaking week.

I’ve sent money and prayers. I’ve hugged my daughter just a bit tighter. And I’ve reminded myself that in this confusing and turbulent time, advocating for gender justice is not an extravagance or an indulgent irrelevance. As I wrote on Wednesday, I believe that addressing issues of sexual desire and shame, of body image and perfectionism, is all a small but vital component of justice work. The most effective agents of change are not those who are haunted by personal demons and are longing for a distraction — the most effective agents of healing in the world are those whose inner wounds have been healed. It is not bourgeous narcissism to say we must go inward before we go outward; rather, that process of self-discovery is an indispensable stage on the journey to becoming someone with the courage and capacity to heal not only one’s own community but to respond proactively to the kind of human and animal global suffering that seems so particularly acute this week.

After I wrote that post on Wednesday, I thought about what I’d written, second-guessing myself. Was I just giving comforting pablum to gender studies majors? Was this just solipsistic self-justification? There was a time, in my much younger years, when I would have been paralysed by that kind of anxiety, and been prone perhaps to a brief (or extended) bout of depression. The difference between 43 and 26 (which was how old I was when I started teaching full-time) is that I’ve been given the gift of certainty. I know the work I do matters, not because it’s me doing it, but because I’ve seen how this work can transform lives.

This doesn’t mean I don’t have moments where I feel powerless in the face of the especially awesome scale of destruction and pain and disappointment we’ve seen this week. But it does mean I channel that pain into working harder at what I know how to do.

I’m looking forward to the classroom tomorrow.

A mea culpa

I wrote last week about Young Feminists Speak Out, an event I attended in Santa Monica. Though it was an important and interesting discussion, I noted that I was taken aback by what I interpreted as an ageist slight at “older feminists.” I mentioned posing for a Facebook photo with my colleague and friend Shira Tarrant, each of us with our middle fingers raised; the picture was captioned “middle-aged feminists flipping off ageism.” I posted it on Facebook within seconds, while the speakers were still speaking and the event was ongoing. Furthermore, while I tweeted my annoyance, I didn’t bring it up in the Q&A that followed, and I left the event early to have dinner with friends.

I’m fortunate to have thousands of Facebook friends, including a great many people in the feminist community and many, many former students. The photo ended up in everyone’s newsfeed on Facebook, and attracted many comments and much discussion. And the impression it left was that Shira and I, as “professional” feminists and professors in our forties, weren’t spending a lot of effort on connecting with the young people who were speaking. We had constricted around a couple of unfortunate remarks, and my choice to post the photo reinforced the notion that ageism had been the great theme of the event. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing at Feminist Fatale today, Miranda Petersen takes issue, rightly so, with how I interpreted the evening. Miranda writes:

The truth is age discrimination goes both ways. It’s funny; we addressed the topic of the “generational divide” to help break down some of those assumptions. Instead, we experienced first hand the lack of respect many young feminists are confronted with: either we are cast as ignorant or naive (e.g., “they’ve got so much to learn…”), or our integrity and motives are questioned (e.g., our justification for using “young feminists” in the title). There is certainly much learning to do on our part, and the distinction between age vs. ideological divides is worth some serious discussion. But how are we supposed to do better if we aren’t taken seriously to begin with?

Emphasis in the original.

Miranda’s right. I take full responsibility for posting a photo that was inappropriate and got a tremendous amount of attention. For the record, the picture was taken with my camera and was my idea; it was an impulsive and frankly juvenile decision to post it. I chose to do at the workshop what I try never to do with my students, and indeed warn against — taking one inflammatory remark out of context and focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else. For someone who considers himself a role model as well as an advocate for egalitarianism and social justice, for someone who works with these young people day in and day out, that was disappointing and inappropriate and I am genuinely, publicly sorry. I was wrong.

Ageism is a real issue. It does go both ways. And the annoyance at being falsely characterized as technologically incompetent hardly justifies tuning out the excellent points made by the many wonderful young speakers at last Thursday’s event.

I look forward to participating with enthusiasm and sincerity (and my twittering thumbs) at another such event soon. I will be participating with my colleagues and friends, for that they are, regardless of age.

The Master’s Tools: feminism and titles on campus

I got an email last week from Abby (not her real name):

I work in a Feminist Center on my campus and we have recently welcomed a new director to our center. Upon meeting her I used her first name not even thinking about it, and was corrected by a different person who told me she would prefer me to address her as Dr. so and so.

As we work in a feminist center that focuses on outreach and education about feminist issues and ideals to students, I found her request to be addressed as Dr. to be anti-feminist and pompous. Incredibly pompous. I wouldn’t be so bothered if I worked in a center that didn’t focus on feminist ideals. It creates a very clear hierarchy, and thus who’s opinions and views are valued more – hers. It clearly has nothing to do with formality, as she is not going around calling us student workers Ms. and Mr. so and so. It has everything to do with her need for people to toot her horn. I understand she worked hard for a Ph.D, but if she really needs anyone and everyone to keep congratulating her on it by way of calling her Dr., that’s plainly arrogant.

What it says to me is: I’m a better feminist than you because I have a Ph.D. And I have a Ph.D because I had the money and the means to get one. I find all of if very reflective of her feminist philosophies. It may seem harsh, but I really question whether I can consider her a feminist because of it. It just goes against so many feminist principles.

There are a pair of conflicting ideals that appear in response to Abby’s note.

On the one hand, we live in a world where the Ph.D. (and other terminal degrees) are important markers of accomplishment. Some people feel that it’s vitally important for members of groups who have not traditionally earned such degrees (meaning anyone other than white men) to display them proudly in order to send an inspirational message. Abby’s director may believe that young women not only need to see older women with Ph.Ds, they need to see those women addressed with the kind of respect that was once reserved only for men.

And of course Ph.D.s take money. They also take sacrifice, often the sacrifice of a larger community (like spouses and parents). To refuse to use the title, some folks think, is to discount the sacrifices others made so that one member of the family could earn a Ph.D. It’s one thing to be falsely modest on your behalf, another thing altogether to be falsely modest on behalf of those who helped you along the way. Parents have long bragged about their “son, the doctor”. Isn’t it important that they be able to brag about their “daughter, the doctor” as well?

I’ve written before of my personal disdain for the title “doctor”, and my refusal to hang my diplomas on the wall. But I come from an academic family; both my parents, as well as my brother, have doctorates. My paternal grandmother earned her Ph.D. at the University of Vienna in the 1920s. We were raised to see diplomas on the wall or an insistence on titles as vulgar ostentation, evidence of “trying too hard” or “showing off.” But that’s a position of privilege rather than a universal truth, and I freely acknowledge the distinction. Those who are the first in their families to earn something — and those who are particularly mindful about setting an example to those they teach or mentor — may find that using or displaying those titles are essential ways of honoring one generation and inspiring another.

In an academic setting, where the professor has the gradebook and the student doesn’t, the use of first names may suggest a false equality. It may even strike some people as a disingenuous attempt to cover up the power differential. Using the term “doctor” may seem more honest under such circumstances. Of course, the term “professor” (which, used generally, can encompass those with and without Ph.Ds) solves this problem neatly.

But Abby has a point about the danger of hierarchies. Feminism at its best is more than just giving women an opportunity to compete in traditionally male spaces by traditionally male rules. It’s about changing those rules and reimagining those spaces. Most of us know the oft-quoted line from Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” An insistence on titles certainly smacks of the “master’s tools.” It does privilege one kind of knowledge (the sort that comes from writing a dissertation and having the money for grad school) over other kinds of knowledge. Trust me, I have many colleagues who don’t have a Ph.D. who’ve taught me far more about the business of teaching than my fellow holders of the doctorate.

While it might be fine to use titles as a sign of respect for a particular kind of sacrifice, insisting that the title “doctor” be used for Ph.D. holders strikes me as it strikes Abby: incompatible with a feminist commitment to the kind of egalitarian values one might expect in a campus women’s center. A female professor who wishes to be addressed as “doctor” in a classroom setting is one thing; to expect that in an explicitly feminist space like the Women’s Resource Center is something altogether different. A Women’s Resource Center should be a place where traditional campus hierarchies are called into question, where the focus is as much on nurturing the spirit as it is on disciplining the mind. There’s no inconsistency in being “Jane” when one is in the campus WRC, and asking to be called “Dr. Doe” in a more explicitly academic setting. And if I were able to speak to Abby’s campus director, that’s the advice I’d give.

It’s a dangerous thing to be too enchanted with the master’s tools.