Friday, June 5, 2009

Before a Ph.D., I was a feminist

Before I set foot into a Ph.D. class that first semester, I bought all the textbooks assigned for Composition Theory and read one. Truth be told, it wasn't as much that I'm an overachiever (which I am) as it was that I was intimidated by the English studies folks and their vocabularies (their perspectives and ways of seeing things far different from my own as a published and professional and degreed applied linguist for sixteen years).

The book I read was Composition-Rhetoric: Backgrounds, Theory, and Pedagogy. I knew of the author, Robert J. Connors, from his collaborative work with Andrea A. Lunsford on a college handbook for writing, which one of my colleagues and I had drafted ESL student annotations for and were talking with the publisher about. I chose that book to read first because it seemed to give a good overview of the history of composition and rhetoric studies in the USA.

I remember where I was on the playground of the elementary school of one of my daughters. "Damn," I thought (but of course didn't say out loud). "Really? 'Women were definitively excluded from all that rhetoric implied.... The exclusion of women from rhetoric continued long after rhetoric ceased to play any important role in the actual affairs of government.'? Really? 'The church, of course, was increasingly where all meaningful speaking was done, and this Pauline stricture, straight out of Judaic misogyny, was taken as commandment by all later Christian thinkers. The conception of woman as the fountainhead of human sinfulness, as the type of Eve, led to an ever more insistent demand by the church that her role be passive, circumscribed, and private....' Yes, but this has been a contemporary problem in the context of American college composition and rhetoric studies? And does Bob Connors characterize Andrea Lunsford, his colleague, the way he does the American women academics of the nineteenth century who he says, because of the circumscription by male thinkers to the private, flourished in composition rather than in rhetoric where men dominated?" (I didn't know of any of the problems women rhetoricians and other men and women feminists had with Conners book when I read it - nor did I hear about the issues from the professor - and had to discover these in journals of English studies in private in the library, after the course ended.)

If I can remember, I was a feminist when I was five years old. One of my siblings had been sexually abused by a single missionary, a man. The public thing that rankled my father so was that the other missionary had cut back the cuticles of this child until they nearly bled.

This sort of thing was the first incident I remember. When I was in college in the USA, after two of my buddies missionary-kids from two different families took their own lives and their fathers made pronouncements at their funerals, there was more to remember.

Other MKs all grown now have finally spoken out about a third abuser, the cause of their own contemporary sexual dysfunctions, which they remain silent about, for whom would they tell? Who can they tell?

I remember watching with my spouse the self-made documentary of Angela Shelton, on a quest to find and to film all the other Angela Sheltons in America and finding that many of them had been raped or molested by family members, by men, and Angela herself has to film the confrontation with and denial of her own father. The professor of the Ph.D. course, the Rhetoric of Women Writers, that I was in at the time agreed at my request to show the documentary in class, which for me was a way of speaking out for the first time. Speaking out for me has been listening, had been rather numb passive listening. (I credit that professor for my adult human conversion to feminisms, for en-couraging me to research and write a dissertation on sexist rhetorics).

My son home from college interrupted me at work yesterday with his phone call, asking all of the sudden if we could meet somewhere for lunch. I put him off at first, suggesting "tomorrow." We small talked. Then I sensed something, and we finally talked then and there about some private matter of his that was deeply distressing him. Oh, I could have missed him, came so close to missing the depth of his issue, a very private thing indeed.

There are many who tell there stories now in meetings I attend where confidences cannot be broken for reasons of safety. It's hard to listen. Harder not to listen. "I was raped by the father of the children I was babysitting." "I waited until my husband left the house and erected the step ladder and jumped off so as to make sure my pregnant belly would hit first because even though abortion is legal it's a sin he will not tolerate." "Two different pastors both married men have propositioned me and my own father a deacon just tells me I've misread their meanings, of course." "My mother made me serve my little brother, washing his clothes and such, because my father was the head of the home, she said." Yes, I know it's hard to listen. And a blog is no place. Or at least let the abused blog for themselves anonymously if they must. Some of you have heard me say "Why (You Can’t Ask Me Why) I Am A Feminist: Some Frank Thoughts." But there's no reason to be a feminist for feminism's sake. And we all know that. Our personal insecurities run deep. It doesn't take a rocket scientist or even a Ph.D. in anything to figure that out.

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