My courses in Women’s Studies have given me the voice and tools to go out in the world and create change to better our society.
Here are three scenes:
Scene 1: Teaching Ntozake’ Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide. The WebCT Discussion Board has taken off. One student has used the “n” word. Other students have replied with “a” words to describe the n-word user. And by “n” word, I mean “nigger,” and by “a” words, I mean “asshole,” “ass-brain,” and the understated, just plain “ass.” The n-word user is thirty years older than the a-word users, and is pretty surprised by the whole thing. After all, Shange herself uses the n-word all over her play, so why is it ok for her just because she’s black, but not ok for him just because he’s white?
Scene 2: Teaching Queer Theory in a Literary Criticism class. Student approaches me after class and asks me when we’re going to do the unit on Christian Theory. Accuses me of bias. Tells me her mother is going to issue a formal complaint to the dean.
Scene 3: Last week. Teaching “Identity and Difference in American Lit,” and showing transgender rock musical film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig has just received his botched sex change operation, and is now singing about it. Lyrics include, “I have a Barbie-doll crotch, a one-inch mound of flesh where my penis used to be where my vagina never was.” I think it’s funny, and I smile serenely as I half-watch the movie for the ninth time. Student walks out of room with backpack in the middle of class. I follow. He says he is nauseous. I think he means he has the flu. He means Hedwig makes him nauseous. He won’t watch the rest of the film, and doesn’t care what that means to his grade.
It’s really fun and exciting business to teach courses about sex, gender, and identity. Except when it’s not that fun at all. A lot of times I wonder what the hell I am doing. I mean, I know these texts inside and out, and I know how to help students develop their analytical thinking skills. But am I supposed to be doing something else here?
In Scene 1, War of the N’s and A’s: am I supposed to tell the one student that the n-word isn’t allowed in class? Am I supposed to tell the others that the a-word isn’t allowed? Should I let them duke it out, and live with the consequences of using the language they choose? How peaceful must a classroom be, and how safe? Clearly that room had become tense and even a little hostile. But that seemed ok to me. But you don’t see a lot of teaching manuals called, How To Increase Hostility in Your Classroom.
So to Scene 2, about the Christian Theory. I decided to look around for some Christian Literary Theory. You know, Christian Literary Theory isn’t in the current Lit Crit textbooks, but it turns out it’s out there. So I found some, and offered to read it with the student. She declined the offer, which was oddly comforting to me. But I kept thinking. If I teach Queer Theory, should I be required to balance that out with Christian Theory? Is Christian the opposite of queer? Hmm. Someone forgot to tell a lot of queer Christians about that. Should students in my classes be required to accept non-normative sexuality as their Lord and personal savior? Is it true that I have a gay agenda? Does my whole field have one? How should I grade a beautifully written paper that condemns the lesbian sexuality in a novel as “depraved” because it’s, well, lesbian? How should I grade an error-free paper that celebrates Sherman Alexie’s book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven because it “demonstrates the truth about Native Americans: that they are drunk and lazy all the time.” Is my rhetoric about freedom of speech and students’ rights to disagree with me, with the law, and/or with each other actually empty? Am I really trying to change these students’ minds?
So to Scene 3, Hedwig, his angry inch, and my nauseated student. I did wonder why he wasn’t nauseated by the day’s reading, in which a seven-year-old girl is repeatedly raped by her stepfather, but he was nauseated by a drag queen in a yellow wig singing rock anthems to elderly folks at a scummy diner. Should students have to sit in my class even if they feel like barfing? Should my first-year students in Feminism be chained down while they watch porn during our final unit on, well, porn? Even if I don’t chain them, is it fair to tell students that their discomfort will not be an excuse for their absence? Is the goal of a good General Education program to induce nausea, verbal name-calling, or motherly complaints at least once per semester?
It really is risky to teach Women’s Studies. And while the rewards are numerous, you do feel out there on the line in very personal and complex ways. I don’t purport to get it right much of the time, but I give myself credit for being willing to do it. And I accept this award on behalf of the teachers who take these risks even though it can make you feel like you’re a yellow rubber duck in a shooting game at an NRA carnival.
After a week of getting pummeled (which happens to be the week I just finished), I like to check myself into one of my personal triage units. There’s the Women’s Studies Council, where people like Alice and Linda and many others patch me up with great conversation. There are certain classes where certain students just revive me like a defibrillator, so thank you Meredith, Bob, Kimberly, Krystal, Nate, Audrey, Michelle. There’s my home, where Roo and Phil always know how to help me take it down a notch. And there’s drunken poker, where the best women on the planet cook for me and take my money, and Angie, Liz, Jeannette, Cathie, Evelyn, Tab, KK, and Ann—you are exactly what those sistahs in the 60’s were hoping our generation would turn out to be. So I don’t want to be a downer with all this war and triage diction, but sometimes it’s helpful to remember that in this decidedly not post-feminist age, doing the work of a feminist teacher can occasionally be scary, unfun, and befuddling. The real work has no blueprint, and I want to thank my colleagues and my students for slogging through the confusion and the thrill with me. Thanks for recognizing me with this award. Every feminist should have one of these hanging on her wall to remind us all that we’re in it together.
by Dr. Rebecca Noel
What a wonderful treat to win this award, and what an extra pleasure to accept it on this momentous occasion, in the presence of PSU’s two female presidents, President Steen and, of course, Theo Kalikow herself. From the moment I learned of the Theo Kalikow Award’s existence, I’ve thought it was an award I’d love to deserve.
The founder of Mount Holyoke Seminary, Mary Lyon, lectured her young female students in 1843 about staying focused on work. She told them, “Ladies are turned aside by a thousand things, wh[ich] never interrupt gentlemen.” I’ve thought often of Mary Lyon’s words since I started teaching here. Although I’ve got a decent record on women’s issues and scholarship and teaching, the women’s work I’ve focused on lately is about helping women and men stay focused on work by securing more childcare for working parents in the Plymouth area. This is an initiative I didn’t plan or want. My family and I moved here in August 2004 from Montpelier, Vermont, a town only a little bigger than Plymouth. There, school-age childcare is available until 5:30 every weekday of the year, and many parents count on that. But in Plymouth, I was whacked again and again by shortfalls in childcare, starting with the month of August itself. How was I supposed to write syllabi, attend Faculty Week, move into my office, and meet my advisees when the town’s summer daycamps and the Child Development Center were closed? Then it turned out the afterschool program didn’t start until three weeks into the school year, and it didn’t meet on Fridays. In the spring semester came the February and April vacations, when the bottom dropped out of childcare completely. Another working mother here told me that a year earlier, her home afterschool provider had abruptly closed up shop, leaving several families high and dry. Every woman in those families cut back her work hours. In theory, childcare isn’t primarily a women’s issue. In practice, it frequently is.
Perhaps this explains why I did a lot of crying the first year—crying, followed by whining, fulminating, and hopping up and down. But although parent feedback, and I guess mine was among the noisiest, resolved a number of problems by my second year, the February vacation predicament was more stubborn. After another meltdown, I wrote a deceptively restrained email to all faculty and staff, asking how many people were frustrated by childcare gaps and what remedies would help. Within an hour, I had a dozen resounding replies from both moms and dads, and they kept coming. That quick, voluminous response was both gratifying and effective. I sent out a questionnaire to this circle, which was also distributed to parents of children at the Center, surveying interest in school vacation daycamps. Armed with persuasive results, I met with the elementary school principal over the summer and followed up later. In January, we enlisted the Parks & Recreation program director, and the daycamp was on. Still, we had to get enough kids to make the camp happen, and I got pretty busy with this part too. During an excruciating cold snap in early February, when the wind chill was something like -20, I found myself charging up the hill to stuff mailboxes at the Center with another copy of the daycamp flyer, thinking against that wind, This is so important to me that I am not actually cold! It was a little like being in the Salvation Army. The good news is that the daycamp ran with double the number needed, in only its first year. Yes, there were lots of other parents in this fix. By the way, the kids loved the camp.
Although I’m pleased with what’s been accomplished, this drive for more childcare feels selfish at times. It sounds as though I’m trying to spend less time with my kids, whom I love to infinity and beyond; and I know it’s not as urgent as many other women’s issues, like violence or inadequate health care or racism or not being able to eat. Of course, many women have to work for financial reasons, but staking demands for childcare purely on necessity carries an implied apology. It suggests that working mothers would not work if they could avoid it, which is close to agreeing they shouldn’t work if they can avoid it. That’s not true for me. When my kids were younger, I was underemployed, and I absolutely shriveled up. Even if I won the lottery, I’d keep this job, and I wouldn’t apologize. I know lots of women feel the same. Men don’t have to address this question at all.
Many parents at PSU and throughout this region struggle with childcare problems on an individual basis, and worrying about one’s own precious children and tricky workday often feels like personal small potatoes. But childcare is a big potato, with political, societal, economic, and historical dimensions, and it deserves a solution of commensurate seriousness and scope. I hope we can stay vocal and active in creating social solutions for this problem, as for others, until no one gets whacked by them anymore.
by Dr. Wendy J. Palmquist
First I want to thank those who have nominated me, both this year and in the past. No one can receive an award like this without people who think what an individual has been doing is worthy of such an honor, and I really want to thank those who feel I have done some things that are worthy.
It’s funny to see how much times have changed. When I came here in 1981 the Women’s Center was simply an office upstairs in Memorial, and Memorial was the bookstore. In those early days I served on the Advisory Board off and on, as it moved and grew. But I want to look back even earlier…times do change.
In 1966 when I was a freshman (oh, not a first year student in those days…definitely the word freshman) at Pomona College my entering class was the first allowed to refuse an old college tradition; it still was to be done, it was just encouraged, not required. You see, all the football players would come down to the women’s dorms (they were dorms, not residence halls, in those days) with large doctor’s scales, and it was “Weigh In Day” for the new women students…weights called out, and entered “officially.” My group refused to participate, but most of the new women did it…times do change.
Men were not allowed in women’s rooms except on Sunday afternoons, with the doors open, so there were a set of little alcoves off the lobby of all the women’s dorms, no doors, that were the “date rooms.” We had specific times we had to be in the dorm before the doors were locked and we had no keys, parietal hours. If you were late it meant trouble. So it was fun explaining to my parents when I was home for Thanksgiving that the huge piles of papers I had brought with me were not a class project; no, they were a survey for the student government to demand an end to parietal hours, with the surveyed students asked to choose from a variety of potential future rule structures. I got the task of accumulating and summarizing the data…I guess they decided I might grow up to teach statistics…but I was already interested in issues of equality, because, of course, the men had no such hours, could wander the campus at 3 am with no consequences. We were successful, though it took a couple of years to win the final full battle…times do change.
As a VISTA volunteer in the black inner city of Kansas City, Missouri, after graduation, I spent my spare time involved in the “consciousness raising” era, involved with a women’s group…which means somewhere I have an FBI file, because I later found that group listed as one of the groups that “if you belong to these groups you are considered to be a subversive, and the FBI has a file on you.” Uh, it was consciousness raising, in all the now funny stereotypical manifestations you can see in old movies…we were not exactly a threat to the country…but I guess in Nixon’s days we seemed like we might be…times do change…?
After frustrating a lot of very nice gentlemen along the way, I figured out I was gay when I was in graduate school. There are many tales to be told of those days, but I will save them for another time. I want to jump forward, to right before I came here, when I was a faculty member at SUNY Brockport. My first or second year there a female faculty member from another department that I did not know stopped me one day and told me that if I was gay, I should be quite careful to never allow anyone to figure it out, that I was already a little obvious. Scary words to hear in those days, for someone with no tenure, in an all male department. A couple of years after that I was invited to a faculty party by a woman department head I casually knew, not from my department, who told me there were some people I really should meet. And yes, there was the woman who had warned me, and probably the entire gay faculty contingent. To me the most stunning moment was when I realized that the two married couples who were there may have been married to each other…but their true partners were each in the other couple. Those were the days when a gay bar would have no sign, just a security guard by the door, and if you asked if this might be the place you were looking for, the guard would take a good look at you and say, yes, this is the place you are looking for…before you could ever say the name of the place….times do change.
So when I arrived at Plymouth , I came having made some very specific commitments to myself. I would be active in the women’s rights community, a group that went through many names and gradually grew and created many of the things we now take for granted. I was the youngest faculty member at those meetings…times do change.
And I decided that the only way to be honest was to be out, oh, not flamboyantly, but still, out, from the beginning. It’s made for some, shall we say, interesting times along the way…times do change.
And from the person teaching the only women’s studies course on the campus, the youngest founding member of the Women’s Studies Council, well, I guess I’ve gotten a little older…times do change!
But know that inside here there’s still that freshman, still refusing to be “weighed in” by the football team, dammit! Again, many thanks…keep the times changing, in the right direction!
by Dr. Liz Ahl
I’d like to thank the President’s Commission on the Status of Women for selecting me as recipient of the 2005 Theo Kalikow award, and the Women’s Studies Council and faculty, for creating an environment in which I have been able to support women in the rigorous and important work of claiming their own education. It’s truly an honor to be among the company of such inspiring women. It was especially wonderful to be selected alongside this year’s POWA award winner, Niki Snover. As I mentioned on Friday, Niki and I have taken a journey together here at Plymouth State, through writing courses, women’s studies courses, and extracurricular activities. She has been a great source of inspiration during the time I’ve known her.
When I was Niki’s age, I hadn’t yet discovered the wonderful world of Women’s Studies. I was an ambitious young writer, getting ready to head off to graduate school, and still thrilling at a recent discovery: one of my very favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop, had apparently stipulated in her will that her work was not to be included in anthologies of “women’s writing.” She wanted to be one of the fellas, like Robert Lowell. I loved this. I couldn’t get enough of it. After all, it didn’t matter that I was a woman – I was a Writer. I was a Human Being. The women’s movement was over. I was just the same as everyone else. Just like any other writer. One of the fellas.
Only later would I be equipped with the philosophical framework that allowed me to re-examine my insistence that gender didn’t matter to me, had no influence on me, had no significant role in my work or identity as a writer. Only later would I have occasion to really question my privileged status as a college- educated white woman of upper-middle socioeconomic class, especially as it related to my writing and reading of poetry and my insistence on my “sameness.” Only later would I be able to see Bishop’s choice as having political dimensions that equaled the personal ones. Only later would I learn about the tangle of connections between the political and the personal.
It was Women’s Studies which, in graduate school and beyond, gave me what I needed to understand my complex and changing identity as a writer. Women’s Studies helped me gain a sense of identity as political, shifting, and contextualized. Women’s Studies afforded me the historical and cultural frameworks within which to read and understand many women writers from a range of political and aesthetic points of view. And it was Women’s Studies which gave me both the intellectual savvy to more fully comprehend Bishop’s choice and the courage to make my own choices.
And so I happily choose to call myself a woman writer and a feminist. I choose to be a member of the Women of Words, the League of Women Voters, and the Women’s Studies Council. I’m proud to have my poems included in _Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace_, an anthology of women writers from the Great Plains and High Plains. Elizabeth Bishop still dwells in the pantheon of women writers (writers who are women? women who write?) from whom I continue to draw inspiration and courage – Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Virginia Woolf, the list goes on. But I no longer romanticize Bishop’s choice.
And I am happy to be reaping the benefits of women who worked for change so diligently, many of whom also suffered so profoundly. I look around the campus and I see the fruits of their labor everywhere, especially lately. When we speak of “engaged pedagogy,” we owe a debt to Women’s Studies. When we speak of putting learners at the centers of our classrooms and enabling them to be active participants (rather than passive recipients) in their education, we owe a debt to Women’s Studies.
When I imagine Niki in her future middle- or high- school classroom, or when I imagine other young women and men I’ve had the privilege of working with taking what they’ve learned to their offices, their homes and families, their graduate studies, their elected representatives, their neighbors – I owe a debt to Women’s Studies. It’s a debt I plan to be paying back for many years to come.