When I started graduate school in English in the early 90s, I thought that a certificate in Women’s Studies would widen my training and help my career. My university happened to have a famous professor in the field, a pioneer in academic feminism who had created one of the first graduate degree programs in Women’s Studies. A tough, learned woman with exacting standards, she did not suffer fools or histrionic students lightly. She was also a conservative.
I was a witness to one painful moment in her career. It happened in a graduate seminar in 1991, a required course for the Women’s Studies degree or certificate. Demand was high, partly because it was a core requirement across many disciplines, and partly because of this professor’s reputation. Emory was known as an up-and-coming research institution, wealthy and ambitious, and graduate students were flocking to it from all fields. Feminist theory was a vibrant area in English, History, and other humanities and social science disciplines.
At any rate, her over-generous assistant didn’t say no to anyone trying to gain admission to the class. I was the last entrant, I think, the tilting point at number fifty.
Now imagine that for a second. Fifty twenty-somethings from all walks of life, afflicted with the insecurities and ambitions of grad student existence, crowded together in a small lecture hall. Given the topic, attendees eagerly identified themselves. There were traditional feminists and post-feminists, lesbians and bisexuals, liberal feminists and corporate feminists, and three men, two of them gay. When the professor found out about the size of the class, she couldn’t believe it, but ever the brave contender, she accepted them all and began the course.
I approached the class as a chance to sit with a renowned historian and public intellectual, but as the beginning of the semester approached, others revealed different motives. I heard whisperings among fellow students, rumors that had the feel of pre-game strategizing. “Have you heard her ideas of marriage?” “How can she call herself a feminist?”
Worst of all, she had taken a public position against abortion rights. She argued that the problem with abortion, aside from ethical concerns, was that it assumed that working women had to sacrifice career for child-rearing. Getting pregnant too soon, especially back in those days, made a professional career unlikely. Her argument was that the wrong wasn’t due to conservative pro-life restrictionsit lay in a society that wouldn’t try to accommodate success and children. Women should oppose abortion rights because it was anti-feminist! By taking such a hard stance against motherhood, feminists were only reifying traditional gender roles.
The position was too much for the students. That was clear straight off. They had so strong an investment in “choice” that any other position was malignant to them. From Day 1, they filled the air of the room with acrimony and disgust. I was amazed at the disrespect. They routinely insulted her. No matter how calmly or rationally she made her arguments, she was met with ill-mannered, childish behavior, huffing and eye-rolling. Once, I remember, she turned to write something on the board and nearly the entire class practically whinnied behind her back.
They protested over the reading list, too. It didn’t contain enough of what were deemed “representative texts.” Where was Andrea Dworkin? Where was Catherine MacKinnon (famous for the “all sex is rape” provocation)? Worse, the professor had included her own book on the list. One student actually stood up in front of the class and suggested that the professor shouldn’t expect to profit from the class, especially when said book was a “veiled attempt at indoctrination.” It was as bold a challenge to a professor I’ve ever seen, but she accepted the criticism and then proceeded to make her book optional reading.
I had the misfortune of having to guide the class through a text that asked the rhetorical question: Can men be feminists? I gave it my best shot, paraphrasing the answer as, “Yeah, well, sorta.” Some young men, I addedthe illegitimate and impoverished, the abused, sons of divorce, children of victimized mothershad a pretty good idea of the dark sides of the patriarchy. In the middle of my talk, one student who had informed us that she was formerly a lesbian performance artist rose up and walked out of the room. A couple followed suit. I stumbled to the end.
All semester long, the conversation strayed and stalled. It was a class on feminist theory, but the discussions invariably devolved into personal anecdotes. Whenever the professor tried to pull the conversation back to the issue at hand, to intellectualize these true-life confessions, she was met with indignation, as if she was trying to invalidate their sufferings.
That class was a spectacular disaster, so well publicized among the faculty and student body it really did jeopardize her standing to teach in the department in the future. Shortly thereafter, a cabal of professors managed to exile her from the very department she had created.
All that communal hate had a silver lining for me, though. It brought her and me together to form something of a friendship, and she became a mentor to me. I met with her many times during my graduate career. She remarked on more than one occasion how disappointing it was to her that, for all she had done for feminism in her career, those who had little idea of the troubles women had to overcome in past generations would dismiss those experiences for some vague ideas of political truth.
Though marginalized in the local community, and mistrusted in the American academy, she continued to play a part in my education. When years later she converted to Catholicism and recounted her conversion in this magazine, none of her colleagues were surprised. It only confirmed their judgment.
I thought at the time it would be a worthwhile scholastic endeavor to question ideas of gender identity that affect men as much as women. She fed me books, had coffee with me now and again, and generally provided the intellectual backbone to my graduate studies. She was famous and busy, but she genuinely wanted to know my storynot mine so much as my mother’s, which was about a working-class single mother. My mother’s struggles represented what she once knew, a world far outside the bounds of academia, a place where women were engaged in something other than a theoretical struggle for recognition.
Andrew Ladd is a professional writer and communications consultant. He earned his PhD in English at Emory University.