Thursday, December 17, 2009

Labelling Feminists, Changing Us

Yesterday, Jessica Valenti, an Editor of the blog writes how college education "literally changed my life." She speaks on university campuses, trying to contribute to such life changes, and in return many people on campus endorse her on the blog. And yet she remains critical of the academy, arguing "it's not as accessible as it should be, and that it makes feminism something that only folks who are fortunate enough to go to college can take part in." In many ways, Valenti's life story of change because of higher education is a story I appreciate, especially with her caution about the limitations of the academy. My own story (and my own thinking) is running parallel hers in some ways.

Without getting into my story, I do want to say a couple of related things. One - to me, the academy and feminisms within the academy and elsewhere really are about people and changes for the good. That's why you won't hear me praising "feminism" as an end in itself or championing an institution or "higher education" as a destination. Two - its the personal stories told by real people often silenced that make all the difference to me, that help me change. I don't do enough of that. And I'm glad Jessica Valenti does, yesterday, go on to say this:
While I think those criticisms [of feminists in the academy being inaccessible] do hold water, I also think we often don't give enough love to the amazing teachers and students in these departments [of women and gender studies] - the way the[y] organize, the way they teach and the way they change people's lives. So, much love to all of the teachers I've had and to all of the departments out there making a difference every day - you are all amazing.
Now, what I want to do if you're willing is to let you in on a few pages of the end of the first textbook assigned to me in my first course of the PhD program I completed last year.  (Dr. Charlotte Hogg, the prof in that course ended up chairing my dissertation committee).  Without your really knowing me, imagine how that course and these words on the page might have begun to change my life.  Imagine what difference it might make in your thinking, in your working, in your changing, in your relating.

Here's from Cheryl Glenn and her Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity Through the Renaissance (pages 173-74):
     I am gratified to be concluding this project, but I must resist closure.  A regendered, retold rhetorical tradition opens up--not closes down--investigation into rhetorical practices.  Even though gender is merely a concept borrowed from grammar, it, nevertheless, continues to have far-reaching effects on cultural notions of the relation between the sexed body and its behavior.  Gendered experiences continue to be difficult, if not impossible, to separate from human ones.  And for that reason alone, the masculine gender, just like male experience or display, has come to represent the universal.  Men have appropriated many public social practices, particularly prestigious practices like rhetoric, as universally masculine; the feminine experience (that of bodies sexed female) has come to represent exceptions, or the particular.

     In regendering the tradition [of the history of rhetoric], I have not gone so far as to "destroy gender" or even to "abolish the category of gender" (Wittig 67).  Instead, I have analyzed distributions of power along the axis of gender that have for too long been easily accepted as nature's empirical design for masculine superiority, for patriarchal representations of the universal.  This discourse of regendering has allowed me to examine gender(ed) performances within and across cultural constructions of the body, human identity, and power.

     To this end, the project of regendering rhetorical history is a feminist performative act, a commitment to the future of women, a promise that rhetorical histories and theories will eventually (and naturally) include women.  Of course, gender as a category of analysis contributes to this feminist project, but it is regendering that unsettles stable gender categories and enacts a promise that rhetorical history will be a continuous process of investigating the works of women and men rather than a final product that can be finally or universally represented.  As soon as it is written, any historical interpretation--including this regendered rhetorical tradition from antiquity through the Renaissance--becomes an anachronism, for it immediately codes its own investigative site as needing/deserving more attention....

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