It's the first of the month, and there are bills to pay and various paperwork items to complete around the office. The home computer remains in the shop, so I must blog and work from the campus. It's odd to be on a nearly empty college campus; my footsteps echo in the hallways and I can have the finest parking space in the faculty lot no matter what time I arrive. Four weeks from today, when the fall semester opens, all of that will be very, very different.
I still have a number of spots left open in my History 24F "Introduction to Lesbian and Gay American History Class"; all of my other classes are full. (My women's studies course is always the first to close, and I'm pleased with how consistently high the demand is for it. My department chair has asked me to consider teaching two or three sections of women's history per semester, but that would be simply too much work. With all the assigned journals and papers, no one would get the attention they deserve.) It is difficult to get some folks to take a course in Lesbian and Gay history; some students have said that they are afraid of what others will think of them if they enroll. (The course title will be on their transcript, after all). For that reason, I'm rather shameless about flattering the courage of those who do enroll. I know very well that even in 2005, a great many of my students on this majority-minority campus come from homes where their parents would be apoplectic if they knew their son or daughter were taking a course in "queer studies". Thus all the more reason to openly applaud those brave enough to take the course, and to risk the opprobrium and ridicule that, based on what I've heard from former students, is all too real.
Last week, Hannah at Feministing linked to this LA Times opinion piece by Crispin Sartwell, a political scientist at Pennsylvania's Dickinson College: I Married A Feminist. The op-ed is ostensibly about John Roberts and his wife, but it's really about feminisms and marriage.
Sartwell makes it clear that as in many families, he and his wife (Marion Winik, who has apparently retained her maiden name) disagree around the breakfast table:
I am a married man, and if I know anything from day-to-day experience, it is that you cannot infer a man's politics from those of his wife.
This truth came home to me again in a discussion about the politics of Jane Sullivan Roberts, the spouse of Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. Over breakfast, I mentioned that Ms. Roberts has been active in a group called Feminists for Life.
I don't think you can be a feminist and try to force women to have babies they don't want," my wife, Marion Winik, said.
That claim succinctly expresses why many believe that abortion rights are central to feminism: Freedom entails control over one's own body. The idea that the state ought to control female reproduction is therefore an odious violation of the autonomy feminism seeks to uphold.
That's what Marion thinks. But for me, the matter is considerably more complicated.
Sartwell takes the same position I've taken, and that is essentially that there are multiple "feminisms". All feminists are characterized by a belief in justice and equality for women, but different strands of the movement define justice and equality differently. More to the point, even within feminist history there is no absolute unanimity on the subject of abortion rights, something Sartwell (and those at Feminists for Life) constantly point out.
Pro-choice critics of this "big-tent" picture of feminism often accuse folks like Sartwell and me of being so inclusive in our definition that we're watering down essential feminist principles, especially the ones about the sanctity of personal autonomy. I understand that concern, and I realize that at least in my own case, my desire to be radically inclusive of everyone tends to trump, with remarkable regularity, any other principle. "Making everyone feel welcome", whether in a women's studies class or at the altar for eucharist, is of such paramount importance to me that I am quite unwilling to challenge anyone who proclaims himself or herself a "feminist" or a "Christian."
Can you be pro-life and a feminist? I don't know. But I do know that I strongly dislike reading a man write an article where he attempts to override his wife's definition of feminism. Jesus Christ, talk about missing the point.
This leads the Feministing discussion directly into a discussion of men, women, marriage and feminism. Do read all the comments through.
The question raised is an obvious one: when and how ought men to speak on feminism, both with their partners and in a public forum? Can one be a pro-feminist man and hold opinions about feminism that are at odds with the majority of women in the mainstream feminist movement?
In one sense, to borrow a phrase from Amanda, I have a dog in this hunt: I've been teaching women's studies at this college for over a decade. Just last week, I cheered the appointment of David Allen as chair of the UW women's studies department, and I've defended "my right" to teach the subject as well.
But even though I believe passionately that men can and should teach women's studies courses, I also believe we must do so with a profound sense of humility. Ultimately, no matter how strongly we sympathize with our sisters, no matter how committed we are to women's liberation and equality, we can never claim to be equally affected by the issues we are discussing. If Roe v. Wade is overturned, I will have not suffered any loss to my personal autonomy. Regardless of whether or not I am pro-choice or pro-life, I am incapable of truly understanding -- on a visceral and emotional level -- what it means to live as a woman in a body that many believe ought to have its natural processes regulated by the state. That's not a personal failure on my part, and it's not something for which I feel compelled to apologize. But while men can be deeply interested in women's issues (I am) we cannot claim personal expertise in what it means to live as an embodied woman.
Of course, there's more to feminism and women's studies than personal experience. I may never have menstruated, but I can teach my female students about the history of sanitary products. I will surely never get pregnant, but I can give a narrative history of the expansion of reproductive rights as effectively as anyone else. Personal experience is not a vital qualification for effective teaching, even in gender studies, but humility is. What is the essence of that humility? A willingness to recognize that male biology grants us the freedom from being pregnant, and that privilege inevitably blinds even the most sensitive and compassionate among us to the reality of what it means to carry a child inside of us -- particularly an unwanted one. And what I think Amanda and others found lacking in Sartwell's op-ed was that sense of humility that ought to be in place whenever a man discusses an issue that is primarily about what happens inside women's bodies. (To be fair to Sartwell, while he makes it clear that he married a feminist, he doesn't claim to be a feminist or a pro-feminist; to me that's an important distinction.)
Though I am a pro-feminist man, I am quite willing to disagree with my feminist sisters about any number of feminist issues. I do think one can be a pro-feminist, progressive evangelical Christian pro-life man without being crushed by contradictions! But I'm also aware that when I disagree, it is my job to do so humbly. It is my job to make it clear -- in the classroom or at the breakfast table -- that I speak not as a disembodied intellect (there's no such thing) but as a man. I'd like to think I'm a compassionate, thoughtful fellow. I know that I have a very good grasp of the story of the women's movement and of contemporary feminist literature. But professional expertise is not a complete substitute for personal experience. Hence, I must always be scrupulous about acknowledging my maleness. That doesn't mean apologizing for having a penis! But it does mean recognizing that biology does shape our world view, and those of us who are biologically protected from the reality of an unwanted pregnancy must be very, very careful when we share our thoughts with those for whom that unwanted pregnancy is a real possibility.