Thank you, Elizabeth Miller, for opening your heart and your class to me. Never underestimate your impact.
There are few things that inspire conservative vitriol quite as readily as the mere mention of women’s studies classes. Offered at most universities, also known as terrible places of liberal indoctrination, discussions about intersectionality are deeply feared by Republicans everywhere.
So when I asked for approval from my high school counselor to take a WGS class at the University of Oregon as part of my extended social studies curriculum, it wasn’t really very surprising that good ol’ Mr. Voss responded with a resounding nope.
My high school featured an administration of a male principal, two male vice principals, and a single she/her—a brand new assistant principal whose best friend was pursuing a doctoral degree in women’s studies. I walked half confidently into her office and informed her that Mr. Voss had told me that a women’s studies class “wasn’t real social studies.” She politely disagreed with his uninformed opinion and allowed me to enroll in the class.
WGS 101 was the first class I ever took at UO. It was an 8 am that met in a room in the back of the library twice a week, and as tired as I was, being there brought me immense joy. To be part of a scholastic community open to discussing the world is one of the things I had always craved most, and I was being fed new information like a baby drinking in the whole world.
The dark path of gender studies turned me into the exact open minded person my right-wing parents always feared I would become, and it started…just like this.
Over the course of my women & gender studies class, I was asked to do three sinister assignments…
First, I was asked to reflect critically on my own identity and its intersections.
The individual genesis of intersectionality awareness is simply a matter of acknowledging the way your membership in certain groups interacts with your affiliation with other groups to construct your identity in the world. Intersectionality asks us to consider the ways that combinations of identities affect the experiences of oppressed groups. I think this is a valuable thought experiment for any person, but particularly for humans in the process of becoming independent adults.
For me, an initial intersectionality consideration was: How does being white impact the way I experience sexism and oppression? Intersectionality was a crucial response to a toxic white feminism that has historically steamrolled and excluded the experiences and needs of women of color. There are still white feminists carrying on that shameful tradition today. How can I acknowledge my privilege as a white woman and then use it to create a better space for my brown and black siblings?
Our graduate teaching fellow asked each of us to write an essay considering our own intersectional identities in the context of readings we had done in class. I reflected on aspects of my identity like race, education, political upbringing, and gender, and for the first time pondered what those things meant stacked on top of each other.
I struggled to unpack and separate these concepts at eighteen. I felt certain that the pressure I had experienced to be less pale was a race-related issue, while my GTF insisted I consider it through a lens of sexism. Her persistence in explaining this to me did not impact my eighteen-year-old analysis, but it has definitely impacted the way I think about intersectionality now, almost a decade later. (She was right.)
Next, I was asked to reflect on how I use capital to invest in patriarchal beauty standards using personal numerical data.
Okay, to be clear, my GTF did not say this to the room of the hungover eighteen-year-olds. But when I reflect on what I was asked to do, this is the essence of the assignment. We made lists of all the ways we spent money altering our appearances to meet beauty standards every year. I wish I could find mine. (I found it and I wish I could unfind it). I spent more than a thousand dollars annually on makeup, waxing, hair, and facials, thinking it was totally normal because that was the only life I had ever known.
I didn’t realize how invested I was in my own appearance until I saw how much money I was spending annually to try to be more beautiful to people who didn’t care about me. I never put makeup on to feel unique and beautiful, I always put it on so nobody I would notice all the ways I was clearly falling short. As I write this, Killing Us Softly, one of the texts I mention in my WGS 101 reflection, plays in the background. (just to offer credit where credit is due, I’m pretty sure I was exposed to this text by Kate Tierney in Writing 121, but it may have also been part of the WGS curriculum…) Even in the 1970s, Jean Kilbourne aptly observed the ways our culture and our ideals of beauty are shaped by advertising.
Finally, I was asked to reflect on how other people are forced to exist in this capitalist culture in a practical way.
I don’t know whether the curriculum for WGS 101 is designed by the individual GTF or the department, but I really admire the way that the learning experience gradually grew from an individual focus to a collective one. I considered my own identity, pondered the way my identity interacted with the society we live in, and finally, imagined with empathy how it might feel to live in this society as somebody with less privilege than I had personally experienced.
The final assignment was to work in a group to find resources for a person struggling in the community. The scenarios were made up, but the resources we found needed to be real and accessible. I was assigned to work with Megan, a sweet blonde nanny with an eating disorder, and Austin, the only male in the entire course. I don’t remember the exact details of my group’s scenario, but I remember that we were working with a low-income family with a disabled dad, and we thought mom could get a job at Off the Waffle (as an aside I have heard only horrible things about working for the owner and would never recommend this for anyone now.) But I do remember that as a financially privileged teenager, this exercise was important contrast to the fiscal views of my Republican parents, and a rude awakening to the reality faced by the average American. It was a chance to sit down and look at the numbers and the reality of trying to make a life in a world where the odds are stacked against you.
These assignments do not seem to me to promote any sort of specific agenda. In fact, they seem useful, grounded in the “real world” that Republicans are so fond of referring to, and self-reflexive. I still don’t understand what is so threatening to the right wing about education. Why are you so afraid of methodology and self-reflection?
Personally, I have immense gratitude to academia despite my qualms about its structure and goals. If nothing else, it taught me how to think: in a way that is systematic, in a fashion that incorporates the well-developed ideas of others, in a process that is critical and questioning. But I guess to someone who is afraid to think deeply, that could feel pretty dangerous.
All my thanks: to the resistant, sexist guidance counselor, the supportive assistant principal, and especially to a young graduate student, stoked to discuss the masculinity of chicken farming. You launched my high school world into a universe of dangerous, feminist thinking, and I’ve never looked back.