S&F Online

The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 8.3: Summer 2010
Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert

On Becoming Educated
Joy Castro

In graduate school in the 1990s, I am introduced to a feminist professor of law. We're in a bagel shop. It's sunny. Wiry, with cropped sandy hair and glasses, she looks exactly like my nascent concept of a feminist.

She's working on an article about a little-known provision in the Violence Against Women Act, which President Clinton has just signed into law. The new legislation makes employers responsible for providing workplace protection for women whose partners have threatened them with violence. In the past, violent men had ignored restraining orders to assault and even kill women at their workplaces. This new legislation requires employers, if notified that a targeted woman is in their employ, to provide appropriate security rather than leaving it to the individual woman to defend herself.

I know about men who hurt women. Our mother had fled the state to escape our stepfather, who had beaten her and us for years. I had run away at fourteen and been on my own since sixteen.

This is marvelous, I tell the professor. Her article will help protect thousands of women—hundreds of thousands, maybe. I think of my mother, my friend Cindy, my neighbor Diana. Battering happens in every stratum of society, but under the poverty level, domestic violence increases by a factor of five. In the trailer park and barrio and rural towns where I've lived, I've seen my share.

But the professor grimaces and shakes her head. Her article, she explains, is for a law journal, an academic journal. Only other scholars will read it.

But since this new legislative provision isn't widely known, I suggest she could write an article for a mass-market women's magazine, one that will reach millions of women. Not Ms., which is hard to find, but the kind of magazine available at drugstores and supermarkets, the kind that sits in stacks at inexpensive beauty salons, Cosmopolitan or Redbook; the kind that reaches ordinary women, women who might be getting beaten. She could save actual women's lives.

Her face wrinkles. That's not the kind of article she writes, she explains with exaggerated patience. Someone else will do that, eventually. A writer who does commercial, popular articles for a general audience.

Her own work, she says, will trickle down.

I take a graduate course in feminist theory. Our professor, educated at one of the world's most prestigious universities, is intimidatingly brilliant in the seminar she runs like a Socratic inquisition one evening a week. I admire her; I like her; I want to be her—but as the semester winds on, my eagerness dissipates because I don't understand Toril Moi or Luce Irigaray or any of the feminists (after Virginia Woolf) whose work we're reading.

I'm a first-generation college student, here by fluke on fellowship, and the theorists' English seems foreign to me, filled with jargon and abstractions at which I can only guess. They say nothing about wife-beating or rape or unequal wages or child molesting, which is the charge that finally got my stepfather sent to prison. They say nothing about being a single mother on $10,000 a year, which is my own situation. The feminist writers respond to male theorists—Lacan, Derrida—whose work I haven't read. I can't parse their sentences or recognize their allusions, and I don't know what they mean or how they're helpful to the strippers and dropouts and waitresses I know, the women I care about the most, to my Aunt Lettie who worked the register at Publix and my Aunt Linda who cleaned houses.

It's true that the complexity and jargon are alluring, like another country, safe and leisured, with a strange, beautiful language that means only abstract things, where a dozen bright young women and their interlocutor can spend three hours conversing around a big table in a comfortable, air-conditioned room that looks like a corporate boardroom in a movie. But I climb the stairs each week in grim frustration.

bell hooks's piece "Out of the Academy and Into the Streets" appears in Ms., and I'm relieved that someone has expressed the inchoate things rumbling inside me.[1] I make photocopies and take it to my professor, asking if we could please read and discuss it in class. She takes the copies and says she'll see.

One evening, our discussion has strayed to Stephen Greenblatt, who, I'll learn later, is the paradigm-shifting Renaissance scholar who initiated New Historicism, a scholarly approach to literary texts. At the time, I know none of this; he's just another male name. I have no context, but the professor and some of the older students seem to have read his work, perhaps in other classes. The professor is intense, lively. She presses her fist to the seminar table. "How do we, as feminist theorists, respond to Stephen Greenblatt?"

"What if we don't respond?" I say in frustration. "What if we just keep working on issues that are focused on actual women, issues we actually care about?"

Her eyes are wide. "You can't just ignore Stephen Greenblatt," she says. The oldest graduate student, the smart one I admire, shakes her head and smiles faintly.

I disengage. At the end of the term, I write my paper on Woolf's A Room of One's Own, the only book that was clear to me.

We never do discuss the piece by bell hooks.

In a different class, a graduate seminar on multicultural literature, our professor assigns Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.[2] I enter the seminar room that day with excitement. For the first time in my graduate career, I've encountered a text that speaks passionately to me, a text radical and thrilling, an author whose feminist, ethnic, sexual, and working-class concerns correspond to my own, a book that acknowledges real-world prejudice, poverty, and sexual violation, that mixes poetry and history, memoir and argument. I have fallen in love. In cursive, I've gushed onto the title page of the black paperback: The most incredible book I've ever read. It speaks straight to me.

At last. I can't wait to talk about it.

But the professor, whom I've always admired, opens class by apologizing for having assigned the book at all. He'd included it, he explains, only because he'd heard it was important. But if he'd read it first, he would never have put it on the syllabus: it was too disjointed, too polemical. Students quickly chime in with their discomfort over the book's "angry" content.

I'm confused. My professor and classmates hadn't stumbled over W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, or Maxine Hong Kingston, but Gloria Anzaldúa is somehow too different, too much.

It's the anger in the text, I learn, that bothers them. "She's so angry," they keep saying. For the whole session, I find myself arguing in defense of the book's worth, trying to articulate the difference between being angry by temperament and expressing justified anger in response to violation.

The experience is both alienating and illuminating. Did you think we weren't angry?

Maybe if you're a distinguished professor of law, the notion of your name next to a piece in Cosmo makes you cringe. Maybe if your educational pedigree is immaculate, the remedial intellectual needs of people who grew up with food stamps aren't your problem. Maybe if you're a well-meaning professor teaching ethnic literature, Anzaldúa's anger is the only thing visible. Maybe you can't feel the burn of every injustice she inherited and lived, much less appreciate the elegance of her complex aesthetic.

At the time, I didn't realize that these small incidents were negotiations of power, contests over whose perspectives mattered and whose voices would be permitted and welcomed at the table. At the institution where I did my graduate work in the 1990s, Third World feminism, women-of-color feminism, and transnational feminism hadn't yet trickled down.

In 1997, Ph.D. in hand, I began my first academic job at a small college: 850 students, all men, in a town of 15,000 in rural Indiana. Wabash College prided itself on its maintenance of tradition. Men comprised not only the entire student body but also most of the faculty and almost the whole administrative structure.

Students asked, while I was sitting at my desk in my office, whose secretary I was. Alumni at luncheons asked what a 'purty young thing' like me was doing there. All-campus emails by drunk freshmen asked for the best place on campus to beat their meat.

I taught there for ten years, the only tenure-line woman in my department for the first nine. I earned tenure; I chaired my department. We hired three women.

I also got to teach women's literature, including Latina literature, and feminist theory to classrooms of thirty-five men at a time. Farmboys and lawyers' sons took my classes. Some came with the expressed intention of debunking feminism. Some wanted to know, when we read the novels of Jean Rhys, why we had to read a book by a slut. Some questioned women's right to vote. Yes. When I taught Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera, I was under no illusion that its insights would be met with joy.

I value those voices, those questions, that red-state hostility, because they taught me how to make feminism's insights relevant to people outside a closed, snug room of agreement. I learned how to make feminist theory, and critical race theory, and observations about class privilege relevant, exciting, and even needful to people who had no material reason to care. I learned diplomacy. I learned not to back down.

As academics, we can forget the urgency and hunger people have for the knowledge we hold. We can forget that even those who claim to be hostile may need what we offer to help them make sense of a complicated world.

Academics don't share a monolithic experience. Many of us are adjuncts or lecturers, forced to piece together work with few benefits and little security, while the fortunate percentage of us with tenure-track positions have to hustle to build our vitas and merit files as our institutions require. Either way, the thick busyness of our lives can induce a sweet, privileged forgetfulness, a smug sense of how worthwhile our work of "knowledge production" is. Over the years, I've known many dedicated and creative teachers, eager to reach and engage every student, yet I've also known many academics who view students as an obstacle to their real work of research, or who see teaching as a process of simply culling the best from the herd.

But I speak now as one of that herd. The herd is made up of smart, desperate, and intellectually eager individuals—if they are met halfway, if they are spoken to with respect and in language they can understand. They have not been to Harvard, and if we make them feel stupid, inadequate, and ashamed for not knowing its vocabularies and sharing its assumptions, they will retreat. (My brother, living in a trailer with friends and putting himself through college, dropped out after a year.) If our concerns seem too abstract, effete, and irrelevant, they will turn away in disgust.

Yet we need them. Their voices are vital. The academy—as we fondly, misguidedly call it, as if it were some great, unified thing—is lumbering along amidst eviscerating budget cuts, pressures to corporatize, to streamline, to justify its existence to hostile anti-intellectual factions and a skeptical public, to become purely instrumental, a machine that grants job credentials to twenty-two-year-olds so they can get on with their lives. In the face of such intense and varied pressures, the academy must find ways to preserve itself as a place for thought to flourish—yet everyone needs to be invited to think. The discussion has to matter to everyone, and everyone's voice must be heard.

Last spring, my son graduated from Oberlin College, and in only a few more months, I'll have paid off my own enormous student loans. That is, I believe deeply in the intellectual benefits of higher education and have willingly indentured myself to attain them. On the other hand, I loathe the academy's blind spots.

A few years ago, Stephen Greenblatt—the Stephen Greenblatt—said in an interview, "I've been at this for 40 years. And, as an academic, I've been content with relatively small audiences, with the thought that the audience I long for will find its way eventually to what I have written, provided that what I have written is good enough."[3]

On the one hand, there's a lovely quiet confidence in the long view Greenblatt takes, a modest surety of purpose, but it's also a position freighted with an absence of urgency. That unacknowledged absence is a luxury, a privilege, that too many academics ignore, not at their own peril, but at the peril of others, others like the women who would have been very grateful to learn about that provision in the Violence Against Women Act about employers' responsibilities to protect them. "The audience I long for will find its way eventually to what I have written," Greenblatt writes. Eventually. There's no rush. And the burden of finding knowledge, you'll note, is on the audience. Seeking the audience out is not configured as the thinker's job. Eventually, if I am superb enough, the chosen few will manage to discover my work.

Sitting on my sofa on a Saturday morning, writing, it still surprises and honors me that an editor has asked me to write for a prestigious college's online journal. I was raised to be seen and not heard. Now someone wants my voice?

That's the key, I think: to remain surprised, to remain honored. Our public voices are an extraordinary privilege. We can make the choice to carry with us and be shaped by the voices we've heard—the strippers and dropouts and battered mothers—and we can act so that what we do will matter to them. We can continue to choose—no matter what islands of remove our positions may afford us—to keep inviting those voices, to teach free classes to the poor, for example, and to listen to what the poor tell us when they read our cherished texts. We can teach texts written by poor women in our classrooms. We can remember that torture and abuse traumatize humans into silence, and that humiliation and subordination train people into reticence, but that their voices, those valuable voices, can be fished to the surface again, if we are patient, if we are kind. If we care.

In graduate school, professors said you had to choose one thing or the other: you could be a creative writer or a scholar, not both. The creative writing professors said you had to choose a genre: poetry or fiction, not both. You could be a feminist professor in a classroom or a feminist activist on the streets, not both.

It was all too reminiscent of the old divisions long demanded of us: you must think or feel, not both. You must be a mind or a body, not both. You can be pretty or smart, not both. You can have a family or a career. Why did intellectuals in the 1990s continue to invest in such reductive binaries? Why the urge to bifurcate, to build retaining walls between the multiple truths of our experience?

They were wrong. It isn't necessary. Today feminists publish scholarship and creative work. We write for general audiences and trained specialists in our field. I publish in glossy magazines, and the local newspaper, and academic journals; I publish scholarly articles, and poetry, and fiction, and memoir.

For me, all of feminism's waves and permutations—as well as the voices that contest it—are essential. All of our varied feminisms seek a more just world, and there's no need to limit our efforts to particular spheres, no need to cut ties with parts of ourselves. While I serve on the advisory board of a university press with other professors, vetting scholarly projects for publication, I also serve as a mentor to a Latina-Lakota teenager whose mother, a meth addict, lost custody.

She lives with her father, stepmother, and two brothers in their small mobile home in a trailer park. When I drive to see her, it feels like I am driving into my own past.


1. bell hooks, "Out of the Academy and Into the Streets," Ms. Magazine 3.1 (1992): 80-82. [Return to text]

2. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987). [Return to text]

3. Stephen Greenblatt, "Meet the Writers: StephenGreenblatt." Interview at Barnes and Noble, 2004. [Return to text]

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