I'm back in the office, feeling a little stiff but otherwise fine.
I've been busy reading my final batch of journals from my women's history class. I've assigned journals since I began teaching the course a decade ago, and have found them to be immensely useful. (In the old days, I assigned four or five entries a week; now I assign only two. Oh, how our standards grow more lax!) As I read the journals, I'm awed -- as I always am -- by the extraordinary diversity of my students' lives.
This semester, I had a crowded class: 39 women and 4 men. (Some years, I have had more male students; my record high was 10, my record low was 1.) The women range in age from mid-teens (I have one high school student in class) to mid-forties. (My record on the high end was a woman in her seventies, who headed back to college after being widowed, and immediately enrolled in a women's studies class. Sheesh, did she bring a lot to the table.)
Ethnically, these 39 women and 4 men represent are extraordinarily diverse. About a third are American-born "whites" (which is higher than the campus average of less than 20%). In addition to native-born Latino/as and Asians, I've got students from Mexico, Armenia, the Philippines, El Salvador, South Korea, Poland, China, Vietnam, and Hong Kong. I've got a couple of African-American students as well.
What this means is that our classroom discussions are often extraordinarily revelatory for many of my students! For example, at the end of the semester, I always ask my students to tell me what lecture or topic was most memorable to them. This term, almost a third of the women in the class wrote entries about my lecture on the intersection of tampons and cultural history. One young woman (from El Salvador) wrote:
"Until your class, I thought tampons were designed only for women who had given birth. That's what my mother told me when she explained why I should never use them. I'm amazed that it took me until I was 20 to know different."
Another student, a blue-eyed Southern California native, wrote on the same subject:
"I couldn't believe it when you said that some cultures believed tampons took your virginity. My mom gave me tampons when I was twelve. I wouldn't have believed you, Hugo, if other girls in the class hadn't said you were right. It's so amazing to me how my culture blinds me to how other women my own age were raised. I still have a hard time not judging cultures that I think keep women ignorant about their bodies, but I've learned to be better about watching what I say."
In my early years of teaching this course, I often let class discussions get out of hand. In 1996, I foolishly allowed an abortion debate to take place (after realizing how divided my class was on the issue.) It ended in tears and in several students walking out. I made a huge mistake by emphasizing debate (which wasn't healthy) over the sharing of experiences and values (which is). In discussion, I don't allow my students to criticize one another's sexual choices, and I don't allow them to demean other cultural perspectives. That sounds easy enough, like PC pablum, but when discussing issues that hit so close to home for almost all of us, it's often very difficult to enforce.
It's at moments like this that I can't imagine teaching anywhere other than a community college in an urban area! I think back over the students I've had in my women's studies classes over the years who've taught me so very much about what true diversity is. Each year, I meet new students who force me to reconsider my own beliefs, and who challenge their classmates to become both more aware and more compassionate.
I think of Djamila, a young Pakistani-American Muslim woman who took my course in spring 2002, less than six months after 9/11. She wore a head scarf, and called herself a proud feminist. She wanted to be a civil rights lawyer (before 9/11, she had wanted to be an OB/GYN!) She talked with her classmates about reconciling feminism and Islam, she talked about modesty and sexuality and faith; she was the former student who last year sent me a link to Mohja Kahf's Sex and the Umma blog at Muslim Wakeup. I had many other students in the class write entries about what they learned from Djamila.
I think of Beth, who took my class in 2001. Beth was engaged to be married to a young pastor the semester she took my class. A vivacious, thoughtful, extroverted and attractive young woman, Beth was, in her words to the class one day, "24 and never been kissed." Her own belief about sexuality was quite strict; she'd been raised in a Fundamental Baptist home. She had no problems calling herself a feminist, but she also wanted to wait until her wedding day to have her first kiss. Because she was willing to do so, she sat with a group of gals from the course for an hour after class one day, talking with them about her own sexual ethics, about her plans for the future, about her faith, and of course, about her feminism. She had no intention of staying at home after she was married, mind you; her belief that all physical intimacy of any kind should be confined within marriage was linked to her own desire to be a high school teacher and sports coach. (She was a fine athlete). Many students wrote about how challenged they had been -- in a good way -- by Beth. Two weeks after the semester ended, I went to Beth's wedding.
And then there was Julia Ann, who took my class back in 1998. Julia Ann is her real first and middle name, and she was and is a fairly well-known porn star. You can "google" her name if you like, but the content you will find is decidedly adult, hence, no link. I'm comfortable using her real name (Djamila and Beth are pseudonyms) because Julia Ann is a public figure who has been open not only about her sexuality and her profession, but about her return to college in the late 1990s. I did not know who she was (not ever having been up on the big names of porn), but a couple of weeks into my class, she came to talk to me in office hours and talk about her career. She was enjoying the class immensely, she said, but wanted to know when and if the subject of porn was going to come up; she was concerned that I might take a hard, inflexible, "anti-porn" line. I told her it would come up later in the semester, and asked her if she'd feel comfortable talking to the class about her experiences. She said she'd think about it,as (quite understandably) she rather enjoyed the anonymity that came with sitting in class in sweats and a ball cap, just another (very bright and talkative) student.
Eventually, there came a day when she did "open up" to the class. It came spontaneously, taking even me by surprise. She was gentle and warm and funny; she talked about the risks and rewards of her profession. She called herself a passionate feminist. She assured her classmates that she wasn't "recruiting" anyone, that indeed, she thought it was a rare woman who, in her words, was in the right place emotionally and physically to do the work she did. Many of the students didn't know what to say, and a few looked disgusted, but I'm happy to say that many of them did talk with her at length and ask her thoughtful, interesting, appropriate questions. I got many journal entries about Julia Ann that semester!
I'm so grateful for the Djamilas, the Beths, and the Julia Anns I've had in class. They were atypical students, of course, but in the ethnically, chronologically, economically, religiously, and sexually diverse student body we have here in the community college, I don't know what a "typical" student looks like. Though my women's history course is first and foremost that, an opportunity to focus on women's history, it is also a forum in which to learn about the many faces of feminism. Perhaps it's because I'm embued with kneejerk liberalism, but I've generally been insistent that feminism (or pro-feminism) is, ultimately, a label each person must choose for herself or himself. It's a big enough label to encompass a Djamila, a Beth, and a Julia, even though some of my readers might wish to exclude one, two, or all three of these exceptional young women from the ranks of those who may rightly be called by that term. But these three women -- and countless others like them whom I've met in ten years of teaching this course -- have taught me what it means to live out an authentic feminist life. Best of all, they've taught their classmates. I've been so grateful for the opportunity to witness all of that.