Making Sense of the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in an American Election Year:
What Does a Feminist Curiosity Have to Offer?

A Faculty Development Workshop at Bryn Mawr College
Sponsored by
The Greater Philadelphia Women's Studies Consortium
March 31, 2004

Summary of Seminar Discussion
(Prepared by Anne Dalke)

Cynthia began the discussion by asking us how we make the U.S.--both its past and its imagined present--"odd" to our students. Her further suggestion that "teaching is where we work out our worries" was a useful revision of our more usual notion of its being the place where we "perform our expertise," where we make available and accessible not what know, but what we do NOT. As the New York Times reported recently, "we expect our leaders to be perfect"; so too our students expect from us the assurance of expertise. What might it mean to "teach as the puzzled person," to insist on collectively puzzling out questions together, and so allowing the unexpected to emerge in the classroom?

There was much rich discussion about transforming the peace movement into a current progressive politics. The earlier work of women's studies involved "placing women in the center of the conversation," because their experience had been so markedly omitted. Might the "new face of feminism" involve "de-centering oneself," not taking one's own experience as the norm? Might a contemporary politics invite (for instance) our students to de-familiarize their own presumptions about the nature of power? Cynthia calls one of her courses "International Women's Thinking," rather than "Feminist Theory," because she wants her students to reconsider their notions of where authority lies, of who might function as a source for insight. Her course title invites her students to listen to those who have "just explained the world," and to re-consider "what they think they can see, what they think they can access." Conventional distinctions between public and private are altered when the wives of military men are understood as political actors, or when sex workers who live around military bases are seen as contributing to the military effort. Contrari-wise, studies of violence against women might usefully question the "rank othering" that occurs when we examine the public executions of women in other countries; we might well look at the deaths which occur in our own prisons. We "knew it was dangerous all along" to begin with the experiential, but we also need to insist on not relying solely on what we know personally. Perhaps this was the "wholesale problem of the women's movement": we failed to do the needed coalition work, never built the necessary networks between those at the center and those at the periphery of power. We were not successful in negotiating the paradox between centering and de-centering our own experiences.

Much of the discussion involved ways to invite our students to question their most deeply embedded assumptions. How might we invite them to imagine, for instance, other kinds of leadership than those which are as deeply militarized as the U.S. presidency, which takes as its core the role of commander-in-chief? How to help them to understand the ways in which, historically, women's suffrage was enhanced by militarization, by claims that those who contribute to war-making deserve the rights of citizenship? (Does suicide bombing operate in this way?) How to de-familiarize their own lives enough that they might learn to understand the lives of third world women? It was suggested that Peggy McIntosh's classic work on ""Unpacking White Privilege" (1989) might be used to help our students consider their U.S.-privilege (as well as become cognizant of the ways in which and places hwere it is not universal; they cannot always assume it). Cynthia also recommended two excellent case studies of women's organizing that was not located in the U.S.:

Cynthia also made mention of Jackson Katz's work on the prevention of violence in the military, and his discovery that domestic violence is approached there as a matter of "ready-ness" (that is, a dysfunctional family life is disabling to military initiatives; if one is violent at home one is likely to be a less effective soldier in the field). Cynthia talked about what military service does to men who think they are making the extreme sacrifice; it can raise their expectations of what they deserve from those who are related to them. To dismiss the cluster of killings which took place at Fort Bragg, for instance, as anomalies, is to refuse the sort of "feminist curiosity" that looks for larger patterns of causality. Wary of suggestions that we put our energies into the role of women in the military, Cynthia observed that Jessica Lynch "refused to be the hero, refused to validate the stories which were first told about her."

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