Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? ...
-- Sojourner Truth
Thanks to Ron Silliman (Silliman's Blog) for his thoughtful piece yesterday on International Women's Day and the politics of women's poetry -- the topic of what might also be called the insidious politics of women's erasure.
A feminist writer and teacher, I am a woman not celebrating. I have been too busy battling in this week's academic trenches to even notice International Women's Day -- or Women's History Month, which is on-going through March. Certainly these events have not been celebrated this year at City College of New York (CUNY), where I teach.
Is that why I forgot to even note the day? Maybe Women's History Day (or Month) has not been celebrated this year at my venerable institution -- or noted either -- because we no longer have a viable women's studies program, or gender studies program of any kind. In the past, directors of that program used to organize a talk series throughout the month of March, in which I used to participate.
OK, again, is THAT why I forgot?
The retro-administrators at City College do not deem it necessary or fit to give a smidgen of support for the continued existence of a program that supports research, writing, and teaching about women's culture, lives, and arts. And the most recent group of women's studies directors at City College (professors Marilyn Hacker, the poet, and Elizabeth Starcevitz, of Spanish literature), recently were targetted by that administration and required to do extra teaching while trying to maintain the director's post. Hacker, one of the stars of contemporary American poetry, just quit, taking sudden "retirement" from the college. Any wonder? Any volunteers for this now-vacant position?
(There's not exactly a queue.)
Not coincidentally, at my institution, only males inhabit the "higher" policy-making positions --from the deans up. Literally, you have to have certain anatomy to fulfill those lofty roles. Although for a temporary couple of months we have a woman "acting dean," she is without clout or power. And if she did have power, would she dare to consider herself a "Woman"? Would she dare to admit her "difference?" Historically, ontologically, experientially -- to admit any difference in the milieu of this group of male "leaders" would doom her as another administrator from the start.
I think there is a search on going for a new president at my college. (I no knowing.) The representative of that CUNY committee from my department is male. (I wonder how he was appointed.)
I wonder who they'll get to be the next CCNY president?
(Gender: Fill in the blank.)
Nevertheless, I do think of myself as a "woman," if not a "Woman." I am a "woman" as I busy myself writing, teaching, subway commuting, grading, grading some more, cleaning stoves after dinner, counseling students during the day, debating with and among students on intellectual issues from who is the Underground Man to Mo' Nique's role in Precious. (I happen to be teaching Sapphire's PUSH this week.) I am at least trying to contribute my thoughts about women's experience, lives and concerns at my university faculty meetings. They now give me the same work loads, at the lower levels of institutions, of the men these days. I am given lots of work.
But because I am a "Woman," capital "W," I am not really given -- the time of day. When I attempt to speak in these group settings of "colleagues," in my department meetings perennially lead by "elected" men, I am regularly told that I am not permitted to speak, that my comments are "inappropriate," or my "tone" incorrect (especially if I protest the latter). There are many conceptual languages from the sexist bag of tricks to subordinate female employees -- especially if they do not flutter their eyelashes fast enough, or subliminally indicate: I will obey.
I don't want to be a "Woman" -- with a capital "W"! To quote Pearl Jam's song "The End" from the recent album, "I am just a human being."
And, yes, I am a woman! A historical woman. But the problem is: as "Woman," I am not considered a full human being. And the more I humanly (mis-) behave, being a woman, or a Woman -- for example, daring to complain about disparate treatment -- I am blacklisted, or blackballed, harassed, barred from positions from which real decisions are made; I am shut up. My body becomes a central focus. My work is ignored or ridiculed. At an institution like a university that is supposed to be a place of free intellectual inquiry, the programs that support my inquires have folded -- like a shattered fragile fan.
Do we even want a "women's" studies? I remember one women's-studies event back in the '90's that celebrated CCNY women's publications. As if we weren't supposed to have publications. And there was no wine or brie cheese at the reception. There was a carton of stale orange juice and a box of dry wafers on a linoleum desk top. It was a drab and dreary event, which I swore I wouldn't repeat.
Are we women/ "Women" still second-class citizens and employees, even as we are now working intellectuals and writers and poets?
And has anything really changed since Virginia Woolf published Ch. 1 of A Room of One's Own, in which she compared the watery soup eaten at the women's college to the creamy fare followed by cognac at the men's university dining rooms?
Has the menu improved in the last 80 years for women in institutions where poetry, literature, cultural ideas and art are taught and discussed?
I can ask no more rhetorical questions. Thanks for the history lesson, Ron. I hope you'll add next week that we are still being erased. And starved.