I’m thinking about a conversation I had recently with a 21-year-old male student I will call “B.”
B had enrolled in a senior-level humanities class, Contemporary Women’s Literature. He told me he was excited about the texts, which included some books he had wanted to read but hadn’t gotten around to yet, such as The Color Purple. After the first class, however, he felt wary. The reason? “The professor, I’m afraid she’s some kind of a feminist, so maybe I won’t feel comfortable sharing my opinions,” said B, “Like, she seems the kind who’d give me the stink-eye just because I’m a guy.”
“Did she give you the stink-eye in class today?” I asked. (I know the professor, and I know he was wrong about her.)
“No…but she talked about looking at feminism in ‘the most positive light’ as we read the books.”
“And do you have a problem with that?”
B shrugged. “I have four sisters,” he said, “I mean, I’m a guy who respects women so much, I always put the toilet seat down! But I don’t know about looking at books from a feminist perspective…”
I asked him if he could define what “a feminist perspective” means. The short answer is that he didn’t really know, but he hemmed and hawed about “not liking men” and “seeing all masculine stuff as basically bad.”
“So it seems to me your professor was acknowledging that many people have the impression that feminism is somehow a negative thing, and she wanted to make it clear she would be approaching it more positively in terms of social change and literature. Do you think you could be falling into the stereotyping fallacy, B?” I asked.
No, he assured me, he had no sense of male superiority and he felt women were equal to men, should be paid the same wages, could do the same jobs—“but that whole feminist thing,” he added, returning to his earlier vague objection, “I mean, you’re not a feminist, for example—”
Good thing I didn’t have my mouth full of coffee when he said that.
“B, I went to college in the 1970s! I went to liberal arts colleges and took courses in women’s studies in art and literature. How could I not be a feminist?”
He looked taken aback. “But,” he sputtered, “but, you’re reasonable about it…” (“it” being feminism, I gathered).
He was so well-meaning, I almost wanted to take that as a compliment, my being reasonable. How many middle-aged people get called reasonable by 21-year-olds? But, seizing the clichéd “teaching moment,” I asked him from where he might have received ideas of the feminist movement as a legion of self-righteous man-haters and whether this professor’s specific approach to the novels might be a kind of corrective to his or other students’ received notions. After all, I notice that today’s young women often evade being pegged as feminists, even when their values and achievements coincide perfectly with the movement’s aims. He thought about that. And then I had a meeting to attend.
He’s a lovely young man, and I think he will enjoy the class. It may be too much to hope that he felt a bit of perspective shift from our discussion, but one thing’s for sure:
He won’t forget that I’m a feminist! (If merely a reasonable one.)
I’m so glad some people are still trying to get the basic message across. There’s as much resistance to feminist thought now as there was 40 years ago. So much has been lost by silence, and a whole generation has grown up wary of the mere word. I’m glad it was reasonable you and not me who had this reasonable conversation. B will give this class a shot because of your reasonableness, and it just might change not just his life but that of those he encounters. To wit, I’ll try harder to be reasonable.
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Let’s see how stereotypical I can get here: Do you suppose a comment like that from one of your students would have brought out your fiery Latin temper? Hmmm?
Somehow, yes, interpretation has gotten hung up on connotations associated with nomenclature, to the detriment of reasonable and sensible purpose. This young man is, in many ways, a feminist himself. He just doesn’t know it yet. Maybe he will by the time the course is over.
That’s another thing I had already thought of, yes. Not only have we stopped talking about gender, we’ve also largely stopped talking about race and ethnicity. Only (some) women take women’s studies classes, and only (some) African Americans take African-American lit, for example, if it’s offered at all.