A Working Professor; a Playing Professor

Maybe it was being in the office (rather than in the quintessential physical enactment of graduate school – the Cage,) but I felt far more like a Real Professor today. I think it also may have helped that I was on a campus where people treat me like faculty (which I still think is hysterical and weird), instead of as a delinquent and irritating child (which feels much more normal, even when it makes me cry).

I did a lot of great work today, and I think I have planned out pretty much the whole syllabus (at least for the MWF class. Which I now have to transmogrify into the MW class.) Cleis said I was downright crazy, but I couldn’t figure out how to plan the reading assignments without the accompanying class activities and writing assignments they’re tied to. I’m sure it will change as I go along, but for now, I feel a little better. My syllabus even has pictures — which for a historian is cutting-edge, let me tell you.

And, so since I did such good work, I get rewarded with a meme. It comes to me via New Kid on the Hallway who got it via Brightstar. Instead of tagging people, indicate in the comments whether you would like to respond. SO, if you want me to send you 5 questions, just let me know and I’ll send you some questions unique to you that I want to know about.

Here’s what New Kid sent me:

1. How did you get interested in history?

For me, it really started with a question that I just couldn’t find a satisfactory answer to — the question that ultimately became my dissertation. This is a long story, folks, so hold on to your hats and bear with me.

Like many women her generation, my Mom discovered feminism in the ’70s, (And a huge three cheers for Mom who successfully lobbied for the ERA in Indiana -the last State to pass the amendment.) This was all around the time that I started growing up, so as a kid I got a healthy dose of gender equity with my evening meal, Free To Be You and Me in the morning, and Stories for Free Children before bed. Anyway, part of my feminist education was about the history of women’s rights — about those women who had fought the good fight long before mom was doing it — Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul, etc. These were names I seemed to always have known. And a feminist was something I had just always seemed to be. It seemed supremely logical to my eight-year-old brain. I mean, of course women should have the same chances as men, right? What kind of crazy person would think anything different?

Once I left the shelter of my montessori grade school — In junior high and high school — I found out the answer: most of the other kids in the reddest of the red Midwestern states in the Reagan years. Suddenly, it seemed like out of nowhere, I became the oddball. The geeky weird feminist liberal. And worse, I was smart and outspoken and, I’m sure, annoyingly vehement about the rightness of my beliefs. I think I was so vehement partly because I was being ostracized for it. If I was going to be attacked for who I was, I thought I should own it, and live up to it. Around my junior and senior years, I started also to think that maybe I should at least get some school credit for my political beliefs since I seemed to be spending so much of my time defending them. So for my senior English project, I wrote a paper on the origins of feminism in the United States. (The assignment for the class was to do a research paper on something to do with science. I totally dodged that one by arguing to the teacher that social sciences were a science, and that history was a social science. I think just to shut me up, she gave in.)

As I was reading for this paper, I came across some things that just blew my world open. Some of these women — who I had admired so much for their willingness to fight the majority of folk they knew and their world as it was arranged around them for ideas about equality (who I felt a distinct kinship to)– some of them were using seriously racist language to describe their right to political power. What? How could they? I felt betrayed by them, and horrified that these white women who had fought so hard for gender equality for themselves were perfectly willing to generate inequality for other men and women. At the time I didn’t have a good sense about the inherent, embedded racism of the 19th century that permeated everything and from which very few white Americans were immune. But, even had I understood this, I felt like had struck a nerve – there was something here that bothered me, that just didn’t seem to fit or work. And, it felt like a dirty little secret. Why did no one talk about this? Where was this racism in the story of the great feminists? I couldn’t understand it. [A huge shout out here to folks of color who were raised with this story of white racism. No surprises here. Black people have LONG known that white women haven’t always been their best allies. For me, though, it just wasn’t a part of the story I had learned as a little kid. I learned about racism, I learned about Civil Rights, I learned about equality, I learned about feminism — I just didn’t learn that the history was all so much more complicated than the mythology.] perplexed, I didn’t really know what to do with this first lesson that no heroes are perfect, even feminist ones. I did the best I could, wrote a 5 page paper, turned it in, put the discomfort away, and went to college.

In college, I forgot about the question for a while, caught up in the sexiness of topics like anthropology, sociology, psychology, and political science, and I started working on a major in government. But, gendered ideas about power remained at the heart of my interests. By the end of undergrad, I had decided I wanted to go to graduate school to study the history of women’s politics. While I was there, I rediscovered this same question that had haunted my 16 year-old self: Why were early white feminists so blatantly racist? I found no better answers in the existing literature at 26 then I had at 16. And this question became the heart of my dissertation. It took me over a decade, but now, I think I finally I have an explanation I’m satisfied with that is more persuasive than “they were just going along with the people of their time” or the more comforting “they were just evil racists.” (Of course, I could tell you my answer, but then I’d have to kill you. It’s the topic of my not-so top secret dissertation. And, besides, this post is going on WAY too long as it is. Nobody, I’m sure wants to scroll through an additional 350 pages here.)

Postscript: A few years ago, I was cleaning out some old boxes of junk before a move and found the little research notecards I had taken for that high school paper. For some reason, I had kept them when I had tossed everything else school-related from that time in my life. At the point that I came across these heartbreaking little bubble-handwritten words on 3×5 cards, 1 quote per card like a good little by-the-book researcher, I had actually forgotten that I had written a paper on it way back when. But, I never forgot that moment of shock when I saw that awful racist language coming from the pen of Susan B. Anthony — that moment when a heroine of mine fell from my good grace.

——————–
Well, now it is way too late to do the rest of the questions. I’ll pick up on them tomorrow. Night all.

Advertisements

One response to “A Working Professor; a Playing Professor

  1. What a wonderfully vivid and moving story. Next time I’m working with a student who’s having trouble choosing a diss topic I’m going to send her or him over here. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s