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twig's picture

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Two. This is the score my education would receive if Peggy McIntosh were to watch the film of my academic life and apply her rubric. After two decades, a two out of five is all the progress I have to show. This level, “Women in history”, is essentially dead white men’s history with a few notable female exceptions thrown in the text book margin. Confined to a red white and blue box, these few women have their lives and achievements streamlined and summarized into a small, sound bite style paragraph, with any potential complexities edited for ease of fitting into the male model that is laid out in the other 98% of text. In my education for the most part, women have been a side note, a foot note, an after thought. As a girl or a woman depending on how far in the educational film you rewind, this shouldn’t have gone unnoticed. The general observer would say, well obviously you noticed, and it disturbed you on a deep level, so you chose to advance your education up the “broken pyramid” and to that end, came to Bryn Mawr. However, this is only partially true. Bryn Mawr, a woman’s college, is really where this rubric becomes important.

Everything before Bryn Mawr was standard public school instant TV dinner style education – prepackaged and homogenized with a formula for what can marginally be defined as success. It comes as no surprise, and therefore is not worth great explanation, why such an education ranks so low. Bryn Mawr however, is another story. Granted, Bryn Mawr is a step up the pyramid. By definition, we exist on the third level. McIntosh calls this “women as a problem”, but I think it is in the same vein to call it “women as exception”, which makes the Bryn Mawr connection much more obvious. The goal, in theory, is admirable – to give women a space where they can learn beyond what they will learn in the outside world, where men still dominate. They will be shaped and when they leave, Mawrtyrs will be truly prepared to take on the world. Though meant to be liberating, this structure actually ends up rather limiting. The world has men in it, there are just as many of them as there are of us, give or take a percentage point. It therefore seems strange to remove woman, teach them, and then reintegrate them. In my mind this is comparable to teaching someone to swim on land. It doesn’t matter how good of a swimmer you are on land, eventually you will have to swim in the water. Do women possibly get spoken over, or experience sexism in a class that is half males? Yes, it can happen, but which women are going to get farther in life, (which does includes males) – those who learn to hold their own and be heard regardless of their sex, or those who only have other females to contend with and so never truly learn to negotiate in a world of many sexes where they are still seen as secondary? To me the answer is obvious.

Bryn Mawr is also one of a few schools with a specific woman’s studies, feminist studies, or gender and sexuality program as it is variously called. Superficially, this seems progressive and as though it is a means of reaching another step toward educational equality and the realization of women’s role. In reality, such programs and classes are a double edged sword – they seem to be the only way to integrate women, and yet, they actually reinforce the divisions set by the lower phases of the pyramid. By creating a separate context in which to learn about women and even matters of gender and sexuality, such issues are being kept separate from the gamut of all other academic fields. For example, every school has an introductory basic literature class, as well as many follow up classes in a similar vein. Many schools then take it to what they feel is the next step by having, in addition, a separate class called “women’s literature” or “African American literature” or any other such class with works by <insert marginalized group name here> writers. Some people see this and are relieved that at least now we can expose students to authors who wouldn’t normally fit into the standard (read: white men’s) literature classes. However, this system reinforces the phase one idea that Literature is written by dead white men, as any other literature must be preceded by a qualifier.  This same model can be applied to any other subject – history, science, psychology, etc. Science is especially good to view this in, as the absence of woman is just now becoming news. To rectify this, we have a “women in science” class. This indirectly states that every single other science class IS in fact, men in science. By simply throwing marginalized groups the proverbial bone by giving them a separate class/program to exist in, we will never reach level five and actually will only continue to retard our growth through the illusion of progress.

Issues of gender and sexuality, as well as the issues pertaining to various non- dominant social groups (though these groups are often the majority), are present in every aspect of culture and academia, not just where progressive course/program titles allow them. In order to reach a phase five system we have to see this integration and not merely relegate these issues to three hours a week in a class that bears the appropriate adjective.




Anne Dalke's picture

Learning to swim on land

Your suggestion that the structure of a BMC education, "though meant to be liberating...actually ends up rather limiting" was shared by several of your classmates; see especially Cantaloupe's essay, also called "Women in History" (with an icon curiously different from yours), which says, in part, "I’m not convinced Bryn Mawr is librating me as a woman, I’m afraid it’s confining me as a 'Mawrter.'"

The sharpest critique of your essay, though, is aimed @ the Program in Gender and Sexuality, which (like most of its ilk) "actually reinforces the divisions" it critiques, by creating a separate context in which the topics relating to gender and sexuality are discussed: "Literature is written by dead white men, as any other literature must be preceded by a qualifier."

Derrida might say, of course, that this is the only way we can avoid becoming just another "cell in the beehive" of academia, by refusing to become a department. I take it that you are advocating a different strategy: complete infiltration of the beehive? No "outside," nothing "marginal"?