Monday, November 10, 2008

Discovering I'm Not a Feminist

During Whitworth College's spring break of 1983, I rode the Greyhound to Seattle land back to hang out with some friends, go to a few movies, and just enjoy being on a short trip.

I was a working as a full-time, interim instructor in the English Department. I was twenty-nine years old, newly divorced, and trying to secure some direction in my life. Through my youth and enthusiasm and liberal-mindedness, I quickly won the trust of quite a few outsider students at Whitworth, most notably a group of women who met regularly for dinner together off-campus to discuss their emergent ideas about gender. Several, but not all, of these students were lesbians.

In casual conversations at the store or in the cafeteria or in my office, I asked questions, not to challenge, but to understand what these students were discussing and tried to understand their perspectives. I was ignorant. They loved helping me understand their questions and how they talked about things -- and always made it clear that I would never be invited to their meals for women!

One of the students suggested that I read Adrienne Rich's collection of essays On Lies, Secrets, and Silence.

I read Rich's book on the Greyhound bus between Spokane and Seattle.

The book puzzled me. It challenged my assumption that consciousness, how we think, perceive, remember, and generally experience the world was a sexless/genderless experience.

I thought of feminism as a movement centered on equal rights for women under the law and on equal opportunity in the workplace and on women earning equal pay for equal work.

It had never occurred to me that on a metaphysical level, women experience the world differently than men or that women have different ways of arriving at knowledge and of deciding what kinds of knowledge they find reliable. Nor did I ever think of questions of morality or ethics as being anything but a universally human concern, not a concern that women experience differently than men.

Rich challenged my universalist philosophical assumptions more strongly than they'd ever been challenged. Rich helped me begin to think of feminism as concerned with deeper issues of consciousness, with consciousness shaped by gender.

I felt a little threatened at first. I didn't like the idea that the experience of being a woman was quite different from mine, as a man. I wanted to believe that, at the level of perception and cognition and affect, men and women had more in common than differences and that if men and women could work things out socially and legally, if we could hammer out institutional equality, we could stop thinking of women's issues and focus more on human issues.

In other words, I'd thought of feminism as a legal/political/social movement. I was, and still am, a proponent of this kind of equality, so I thought I could call myself a feminist.

After riding a Greyhound bus between Spokane and Seattle in the spring of 1983 and after reading On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, I never thought of myself as a feminist again.

Ever since that bus ride, I have regarded feminism as a fundamentally philosophical way of women working to resist the idea that men and women differ only in terms of reproductive organs, the ability to give birth, and in other physical respects.

I came to understand that the differences between men and women are deeper than physical and chemical.

This difference is fundamental: men and women perceive, process, think about, sort out, understand, negotiate, and understand reality in fundamentally different ways.

The memory of my bus ride between Spokane and Seattle, my conversations with the feminist students at Whitworth, my years of further reading and countless conversations and discussions listening to women graduate students and faculty at the University of Oregon and fellow instructors at LCC all came back to me when Barack Obama was elected president last week.

Not only do men and women perceive, process, think about, sort out, understand, negotiate, and understand reality in fundamentally different ways, so do members of different races.

And that's where I'll pick things up in my next blog entry. How has being white (and male) shaped my consciousness and the way I experience the world I live in? I don't see the world the same way an African-American does.

It's why I don't think we can think of a post-racial world.

It's why in my happiness that we elected Obama president, I also feel very somber. It's not that I don't want to be led by a man who has and does experience the world fundamentally differently than I do.

It's the challenge Obama and our country faces that leaves me somber.

Enough for now: I'll pick this up in another day or two and try to sort out the question of racial whiteness as it applies to me, a North Idaho boy, and how being white has affected the very frame of mind I carry with me into the world.

I'm hoping that eventually I can explain why I think we should be saying that if we voted for Barack Obama, it was because he's black. And how I don't see anything wrong at all about voting for a candidate because of our response to his race. I think such a response is healthy and inevitable.

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