Friday, March 7, 2008


Professorial Feminism

Feminism is often seen as a dirty word in modern society and other people often see the activism that comes from feminist women as a nuisance or a bother. This has spawned a number of myths about feminism ranging from bra burning, to hairy-legged lesbians. Not the least of these is the idea that everybody from the West Coast is an angry, liberal, activist, feminist. This feeling is created by a range of historical causes including California’s traditionally liberal base, riots and protests that have come off the West Coast to impact the climate in the entire country, and ideas once considered to belong to “crazy liberals” spreading like curbside recycling. As I’ll explain using the insights I have gained from an interview I have done with one of my Landscape Architecture professors, a West Coast upbringing is not necessarily more likely to cause someone to take up the label of feminist.
I interviewed my professor, Shelley Cannady for this blog post because I know her fairly well in the context of the professor-student relationship, and this knowledge acted as a sort of teaser for what I might get from some carefully probing questions. From what I had gotten to know about her through our interactions I was sure she would have interesting things to say about growing up, activism, feminism, and what influenced her to become the person she is now. She is an open-minded, and I would say liberal woman who generally agrees with me but isn’t afraid to offer a challenge. I wasn’t wrong, but what she had to say surprised me a bit to say the least. She grew up in Redwood City, California in the early sixties and the surrounding culture influenced her quite a bit. There was certainly hippie culture around her during her childhood but her parents were not
Hippies. She describes what I would call an uneasy truce between people like her parents and the hippie community. Many values were shared between them including a tradition of equal opportunities, anti-racism, anti-sexism etc. however many aspects of traditional hippie culture were not embraced so widely by her parents. The “counter-culture” was not something her parents bought into and they spent time teaching her the effort of hard work. That said, her parents definitely had a negative impact on her in some ways as well.
Her parents divorced when she was young which resulted in a split message about gender roles. My professor received the same sorts of messages as other girls who were described as “tomboys” including a lack of compliments and appreciation because they lack stereotypically female qualities. She expressed feelings of jealousy toward some of her friends who were more conventionally gendered. While her mother was a fairly “normal” woman, her father lived like a bachelor leaving Playboys strewn about even when she visited. This apparently affected her to a degree because she remembers vividly details such as cartoons in the magazines that made rape out to be a joke, and mistreated women. Already we can see that this is not the stereotypical West Coast upbringing. Although many of the values that were emphasized by the little parenting she actually received were on the liberal end of the political spectrum at the time, they are not extreme in any particular way. Mostly, there was a heavy emphasis on the value of hard work and equality for everyone.
We eventually got to the root of my questions. Did my professor identify as a feminist? Would she have some sort of insight to share with me? As it turns out, my professor doesn’t identify as a feminist, but not for the usual reasons. Far from the standard, “I’m not a feminist, but…” arguments that many women give for not identifying with a label they find socially problematic, my professor genuinely fails to identify as a feminist because she believes she can get by on the quality of her personality and work alone. Personally, I feel like this stems directly from her work history. As a former member of the Navy, despite all it’s sexism and misogyny, my professor experienced a hierarchy rigid enough that when she gave an order, it was followed. She indicated that the nature of the military as a male-dominated profession creates both obstacles and opportunities for women within its ranks. I feel like this creates more barriers for women within our armed services than it does opportunities but her career seems to have been a good experience. This doctrine of equality in the military is incomplete however, and during our conversation my professor expressed some serious doubts about the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and a number of other contentious military issues including the way the military is being used in the War on Terror. Now, as a member of the Landscape Architecture profession, she feels like she experiences a lower than average level of this same sexism, and misogyny. Perhaps this is because of the ever-increasing influx of liberal-minded people into the profession. The nature of Landscape Architecture as a profession that concerns itself with environmental issues, public policy issues, and class issues, and issues of equal opportunity draws in people who are more willing to give women a fair shake in employment and social settings.
These kinds of feelings about feminism and Women’s Studies have lead to all sorts of issues. In my professor’s case, it’s a lack of activism. She has strong convictions about a number of issues and says that she reads a lot. While it appears that her reading list is a bit short on Freidan, Bell Hooks, or de Beauvoir she specifically seeks out the works of African American authors. But, because she feels like the quality of her work speaks for itself it often precludes any serious level of activism, either at work or in the community. One of the failings that I see in this logic is that not every working woman is employed in jobs that are as fair minded as my professor’s job history would say about her and on top of that, not every woman works. It’s a privilege to feel the way my professor does, and those in places of privilege should use those dominant identities to try and make the world better for everyone. She told me during our interview that the biggest “activism” that she might engage in is some kind of verbal speech against direct hate. Which is cool. That sort of activism needs to me done too, and in my opinion isn’t done often enough. I just can’t shake a slight feeling of disappointment.
So, in short, my professor isn’t a feminist because she was lucky. She grew up in a household where equality and hard work were emphasized and has had two great careers that for two very different reasons have made her feel equal. This is a good sign. If some women can feel that way now, hopefully every woman can feel that way eventually.

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