From Lillith Faire to Feminist As Dirty Word: Pushing Against the System

I’ve been thinking about feminism a lot lately. I mean, who hasn’t? Time Magazine nominated the term itself as a word that should be abolished from the English language. Then, when that nomination was retracted, media blamed pushy feminists. Who is a feminist? What is a feminist? What does the term even mean?

I went to college in the 1990s. Those were heady days of second-to-third wave feminism. Women dominated the airways – we listened to Alanis and Jewel and Lisa Loeb. Time Magazine declared 1992 The Year of the Woman (and in 2014 declare feminism an annoying term). I went to college with the expectation that I would marry and I would have a career. No one I knew, and I was raised in a conservative Baptist area of the South, had a problem with birth control. Sex before marriage was frowned upon, but birth control within marriage generally got a thumbs up. In class, I read texts by men and women, and had meaningful discussions about the societal forces that contributed to Sylvia Plath’s suicide. I dived into the wreck and emerged sadder but wiser.

I attended grad school for my MA in 1998 and for my PhD in 2000. One of my concentrations for PhD was in feminist theory. My incredible professor, Penny Ingram, introduced us to the female phallus, cyborgs, and the most monstrous thought of all, the mother. She guided us through Irigaray and Spivak and Lacan and Foucault. In class we often debated about theory and praxis. We’d discuss Irigaray’s challenge of patriarchal structure then want to storm the doors and start a revolution. We’d read the theory then someone would always ask, “How does this work in praxis?” (Because we were in grad school, no one could say “in practice” or “in real life.”) And I or someone would say, “But it can’t, not until the whole system is destroyed. It can’t under current conditions.”

And so my 90s ideals of Lillith Faire and having it all clashed with my millennial ideas of theory and praxis, of systemic patriarchal structures and the inability to shatter that structure. These ideas still clash for me. And now, when saying you are a feminist is likely to attract rape and death threats online, it is even more difficult.

After I began teaching, I added to my definition of feminism by practicing intersectionality. Because many of our marginalized students are ignored or silenced by the climate of a conservative religious institution, I’ve learned the importance of spaces and voices for those with disabilities, people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. As an ally, I often have to straddle the difficult line between speaking for those who have been silenced and unintentionally appropriating those voices. Black Twitter has taught me much about that distinction.

So you can see how difficult the definition of “feminist” is. In academia, we talk about “feminisms” – the multiplicity of meanings and identities and intersections of marginalized peoples. What that means in practice/praxis is that different people have definitions. My favorite basic definition of feminism is Susan Gubar’s – Do you believe men and women should have equal opportunities for happiness and fulfillment in life? Then congrats, you are a feminist.

Until recently, I was convinced that the vast majority of the first world population believed that statement. I felt that most people were feminists when it got down to the nitty-gritty of equality. I even believed that most people applied that statement to other marginalized peoples, that most people believed that ALL humans are equal and deserve equal opportunities for health, education, careers, and personal fulfillment.

But now I don’t.

Neither my naïve 90s self nor my smugly enlightened grad school self would have envisioned a 2014 in which women are systematically harassed for expressing opinions online. Neither self could have even conceived of a 2014 in which birth control was labeled not as fundamental women’s health care, but as optional and for “sluts.” I couldn’t have imagined a world in which voters decide the basic human rights of a group of people. I could not foresee a world in which protesting as a person of color constitutes a state emergency. I couldn’t have foreseen that only 60% of people in 2014 identify as feminist (in spite of Beyonce’s proclamation).

I would not have imagined just one routine grocery trip to Walmart in which I was questioned by a cashier over my 6-year-old son’s choice of a Hello Kitty Happy Meal. (Never mind the questioning over allowing him to have a Happy Meal in the first place.) As he played with his Hello Kitty, we saw a display of educational toys. We talked about the cool toys then looked on the other side to see if more were displayed there. Instead we found a pink side full of craft kits. It was the embodiment of the binary. Until we saw the pink side, we assumed the educational kits were for kids. Seeing the flip side made us realize the educational kits were for boys.

I went home sick at heart. I’m so tired.

I’m tired of women and POC expressing ideas online and getting harassed and threatened. I’m tired of LGBTQ people who are just asking for their rights as humans being degraded and called abominations. I’m tired of explaining to my son that it’s okay if he wants to polish his nails or play with Hello Kitty. I’m also tired of asking him if any girls make the Minecraft tutorial videos that obsess him. I’m tired of being labeled as “pushy” if I speak too much in a meeting. I’m tired of making less than my male colleagues. I’m tired of my husband having to answer questions which imply sexual impropriety as a man in middle-grades education. I’m sick to death of pink and blue and the incredibly stifling binary enforced by limiting our children to two choices.

Today in my British lit survey we talked about “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell. He describes the infuriating futility of not wanting to shoot the elephant and knowing he has to shoot the elephant, of being stuck in a system that he hates yet cannot change. He despised a system in which he was forced to participate. Damn that elephant.

How do we step outside that system, that elephant in the room, that Foucauldian web of power, and change it all? That’s always been the question. Now that question for me takes on more urgency. As I try to live in this world as a woman, as I try to raise a son who embraces and celebrates multiplicities and identities, as my friends of color and my LGBTQ friends STILL work for human rights, as I try to help my students see the web of power and never unsee it, I am more convinced that we have to break the system. Smash it. Like Irigaray, I and many people know the system is rotten. I can’t answer the question about what we do to change it, demolish it, of exactly how we smack it with a giant hammer. I don’t know how we allow those smashed systemic fragments to multiply into diversities and identities. But it must be done. We create systems. Let’s destroy this one before it destroys us.

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Posted by on November 18, 2014 in Uncategorized


Tell This In Remembrance Of Me: Ela Weisberger and the Stories of Terezin

“I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.” — Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Many writers talk about the need to write. The words burst forth; they must be written lest the writer explode. Some stories have to be told. The Mariner is compelled to tell his story, creating wiser but sadder men. Boswell had to journal his life or he felt he had not actually lived it.
Yesterday at church and today at school, I met and heard Ela Weisberger, a survivor of the Terezin concentration camp. She is a modern-day Mariner, a person who has to tell her story, who compels us all to listen.
Ela was 11 when she entered the camp at Terezin. She was best friends with Pavel Friedman, the young man who wrote the famous poem, “The Butterfly.” She played the Cat in Brundibar and performed in The Fireflies. She painted and sang and wrote poetry because her teachers insisted that the children create art, tell stories. Her teacher told her to sign her name in defiance of the Nazis who insisted the children be only known as numbers. “You are not a number. You are a name,” her teacher told her. Of the 15,000 children who lived in Terezin, Ela was one of the 100 who survived. She nearly boarded the train to Auschwitz with her uncle, but she had left the number plaque she was supposed to wear around her neck in the barracks, and they wouldn’t let her board. She lived to become a soldier, a spy, a business owner, a writer, a painter. Forgetting her number allowed us all to know her name.
And now she spends the last years of her life telling her stories. “Remember,” she told us, “remember my friends who died.”
She said that she may not remember what she had for lunch yesterday, but she remembers the events of 75 years ago. “The things that happened…they became a part of my body,” she says. “I cannot forget.”
She tells their stories. She names their names. She shows us their art, their poetry, their music. They live as long as she remembers. As long as we listen and learn and remember. As long as we tell their stories.
When asked in an interview about his Jewish heritage and about his beliefs, Neil Gaiman said, “I believe in Story.” Ela lost her faith in God in Terezin, but she says she believes in good people. “Three things the Nazis could not take away from us,” she says. “The blue sky. The bright yellow sun. And the Invisible One inside us.” Now her Invisible One is the love of good people and Story.
“My sister says, ‘Ela, why do you have to keep talking about this?’ And I say that I have to talk about it. My mother said I was Chosen to tell the stories. And if one of these young people remembers the stories then no one can say it didn’t happen. No one can say the Nazis didn’t commit atrocities on children. It happened and we remember.”
In composition class, we have been talking about why people write, why we tell stories. The Alabama folklorist, Kathryn Tucker Windham, wrote that we tell ghost stories as a way of remembering history; the ghosts are the stories we don’t want to forget. Like the Mariner, Ela is haunted and haunting. With her stories lodged within us, we are both sadder and wiser. And we will remember.
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Posted by on November 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


Salary Inequity: Financial Sacrifices of Teaching

It has been a week of convergences that have me thinking and worrying. Due to a beloved colleague’s departure, we are accepting applications for a tenure-track position in American Literature. Offering the academic holy grail means we already have numerous applications for the position just a week after the ad went live. But as I read through the letters and teaching philosophies of highly qualified, desirable people, all but one of whom we will have to turn down, I am troubled by what happened at a faculty forum on campus yesterday.

The forum was an opportunity for faculty to ask questions about the strategic plan. Some faculty members pointed out that the suggestions crafted by committees to be included in the plan were not there, namely raising faculty salaries to median average and addressing gender and other pay inequities. Other concerns were low morale and suggestions that the strategic plan include more objectives and fewer vague aspirations.

The answers?

1. Information on median average salaries is not available; therefore, we can only strive to raise salaries to average.

2. Erasing pay inequality based on gender is a laudable goal, and we should add that to the strategic plan.

3. We can raise salaries but that will require raising tuition — do you really want to do that to students?

4. Don’t you want to aspire?

First, the information on median average salaries has to be out there. None of us believe that accrediting agencies and university associations do not gather this type of information.  Second, good lord, gender pay inequities — let’s please address this as a nation as well as a university.

The last two — of course, we don’t want to raise tuition on students. They already bear a huge financial burden. But I am so tired of the continual guilt trip that is the discussion of salaries in higher education. Yes, we teach for reasons other than money, but we also have to pay our own enormous student loans and save for our own children to go to college. I looked up our average salaries on the Chronicle site during the discussion. Bleak. We are listed as “far below median” — the average assistant professor salary for my university is listed as $50,000, 9%. My actual salary is less than that. My salary has gone up $4000 since I was hired in 2007. On the flip side, the President of my university makes $349,000 a year.

So I look at these wonderful job applications –the fresh new PhDs and the people who have numerous publications yet have been stuck in adjunct or instructor positions — and I feel such warring emotions. I want to tell them what opportunities they would have here, how they can learn and grow, how they will have so much freedom in how and what they teach. I want to tell them how wonderful our students are, how they will get to have personal relationships with incredible young people who go on to do amazing things. I want to tell them how much they will love our department, about how much we love each other. But I also want to tell them that they will not be fairly compensated for their education and experience. That they can make more money as office managers. That they will struggle to pay loans and mortgages and to save.

It’s such a privilege to teach. But it’s also an incredibly demoralizing financial sacrifice.


Posted by on November 22, 2013 in Uncategorized



It’s November. Thanksgiving Break is next week. After that we have one week of class and one week of finals and the semester is over.

November is a time of panic and tiredness and too many assignments and too much to grade. But it’s also National Novel Writing Month, a sheer exuberance of words, a glory of writers. It’s Thanksgiving, a time of reflection and generosity and gathering. 

My students are finishing their 20% Projects and will give presentations during exam week. The goal is for each student to find his or her passion, the thing that will get them out of bed on cold November mornings year after year.

Right now, though, we are all tired. Break is still a week away and presentation glory awaits in December. Right now, we have to remember why we do what we love, why coming together in stuffy classrooms on cold, November mornings is worthwhile, why writing and reading and communing is an absolute privilege for which we are daily thankful.


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Posted by on November 20, 2013 in Uncategorized



I have anxiety. I’ve never been officially diagnosed because my doctors take my symptoms as normal manifestations of being a woman and a mother (there’s another post), but I definitely have anxiety. I listened to The Bloggess’ book not long ago, and my heart absolutely stopped when she began describing her panic attacks. “That’s me,” I kept thinking. “Oh my god, that’s exactly what happens to me.”

My panic attacks seem to be connected to absolutely nothing. I can be having a great day. I can be somewhere exciting. In fact they often happen when I’m somewhere exciting — at a restaurant or a movie or a play.  They most often happen around nine at night when I’m settling down for the evening. This morning I had one in class.

I can feel a panic attack beginning. My skin feels crawly. My chest tightens. I begin to feel nauseous and my throat constricts. The bottom of my feet feel cold and sweaty. I start to flush, to feel hot then cold. My mind starts racing, my heart thumps and pounds, I feel dizzy. I become convinced that I’m either going to throw up or pass out. I feel the need to escape, to leave wherever I am. I want to escape my own skin.  Usually the panic part goes away quickly, but the nausea, dizziness, and general feeling of horrible stay for at least a couple of hours. If I have an attack at night, I know I won’t sleep.

My latest doctor finally gave me a prescription for Klonopin which has helped, but it has its own problems.  I try to just take a half, but if that doesn’t work and I have to take a whole one, I’m wiped out. Exhausted, light-headed, overwhelmingly drowsy. This is of course as disruptive to my day as the panic attack itself. The solution is no better than the problem.

I know many people suffer from anxiety. Hearing people’s stories makes me feel a bit better, less like a freak. But I’m afraid to talk about it much. I tell my closest, closest friends and family, but no one else. I need to be more open about it — we only change perceptions about mental health if we are open and willing to discuss our conditions. But I still feel like a defective freak, a person who just can’t keep it all together, who can’t hack it.

The biggest, the darkest secret though, is what it does to my child. Sometimes, I have to go to the bedroom and shut the door and ask him to please, please play with his daddy or with his toys. He’s sad, of course, and how do I help him understand that his mama who loves him so much just can’t be with him sometimes? Lately, when I’ve had multiple panic attacks in a very short amount of time, I find myself incredibly angry for no reason. Like Hulk angry. This morning I yelled at him and threw down his toothbrush.  I can barely write those words. I can hardly bare to even think about it. I tremble to write it. How can I do something like that? How can he forgive me? How can I forgive myself?

Students come out to me in all sorts of ways — they tell me they are gay or are atheists (both somewhat dangerous admissions at a religious school) or that they have mental illnesses or learning disabilities or have been abused or raped.  My heart breaks at each of their stories and for each of them, and I always so admire their courage. They come into my office and tell me their deepest secrets, their terrible vulnerabilities. I cry at the sheer trusting audacity of it all.

So here I am, trusting you, my community, with my deepest secret, my terrible vulnerability. You don’t have to do anything with it. Just listening is good. And if you too feel a bit like a freak, like a person who just can’t hold it all together, maybe you can know you aren’t alone.


Posted by on October 16, 2013 in Uncategorized


PCAS in Two Links

Last week I attended the Popular Culture Association South conference with friends who are former MA students. We gave a panel on The Lizzie Bennet Diaries that was, let’s say, not well-attended. So here’s my Prezi and a Storify about my PCAS hotel trauma which proved the thesis of my presentation.

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Posted by on October 8, 2013 in Uncategorized


Public Spheres and Social Media Circles

My deep interest in the comparisons between sociability in 18th century England and social media in 21st century America (and the world, but I live in America) led me to structure my course on 18th century British literature around sociability, scandal, and satire. For the sociability unit, we are discussing coffeehouse culture, reading selections from The Tatler, The Spectator, The Female Spectator, and The Invisible Spy, and discussing public spheres and the formation of public opinion. Today we talked about Nancy Fraser’s essay “Rethinking the Public Sphere,” and applied it to coffeehouse culture and to the culture of social media. 

The class is a wonderful mix of students. Four are traditional undergraduates (three are English majors, one is a communications major), and one is a retired education professor who loves sitting in on classes. We meet in a small seminar room that smells slightly of coffee. Everyone is rather comfortable with each other.

I knew today’s reading would be a bit daunting — the course is a 300-level so not all the students have had Literary Criticism yet. Fraser’s essay also requires at least a basic understanding of Habermas’ concept of an ideal public sphere as well as Althusser’s RSA/ISA/subjecthood philosophies and Foucault’s formulations of power structures. To help with all that, I created a PowerPoint that broke down the concepts a bit and contextualized some of those theories. (PowerPoint is here.)  

We moved through the PowerPoint slides. They took notes for a bit, then we began applying the concepts and that’s when the discussion really began to get going.  We talked about social media and slactivism. Our retired professor is a child of the 60s so she gave us insight into that decade of physical activism. We decided using social media to organize a physical protest or demonstration is the ideal action (i.e. Moral Monday protests and the overnight organizing against the Sharia Law/Motorcycle Vagina bills in North Carolina), but for most people, activism ends with a twibbon. We wondered if a proliferation of individual voices drowns out the message, and talked about how a coalition of public spheres needs to form so that individuals can see themselves as deliberative bodies.  They decided class is the biggest stratified layer of public spheres now, and class issues exclude some voices.  

I’ve used Fraser’s essay in my own work in the past, but only as it applies to literature. Today we applied these ideas to a networked culture that Fraser most likely couldn’t have imagined in 1990 when she wrote the essay. It was so exciting to see theory as a foundation for their thoughts on their own voices, on their participation within a democratic society. I also saw the essay in a new way as I’ve gotten older and have become more active in social justice and feminist policy issues. Good theoretical and critical writing enables people to peek behind the curtain of society, to see the inner workings, and, hopefully, to fix what is broken.

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Uncategorized


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