National Women’s Studies Association: Seneca Falls revisited

National Women’s Studies Association: Seneca Falls revisited

National Women’s Studies Association: SENECA FALLS REVISITED

The National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) annual meeting was held at Oswego State University this year because it is close to Seneca Falls, and this is the 150th anniversary of the women’s rights convention that was held there. Seneca Falls also is the site of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s home, and NWSA members toured there as well as to the site of the convention.

The conference’s keynote, given by historical performer Sally Roesch Wagner of the Women’s Resources and Research Center of the University of California, Davis, focused on 19th century feminists debt to Native Americans.

Lucretia Mott spent time at the Oneida Community (a utopian community) at Cataraugus before the women’s rights convention, and wrote more about that than about the convention. She saw a cabin that had belonged to the Oneida people, who had been relocated to Wisconsin, then belonged to the white communal Oneida community. She noted that Indians listened to chiefs, who were women as well as men.

John Henry Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, believed that women and men should not dress differently because different dress was inherently unequal. He created a unisex garment that everyone in the community wore, which was leggins — not so different from the clothing of Oneida Native American men and women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton has written that it would be hard for women ever to be equal with men if they continued to wear the equivalent of 36 pounds of pressure in their whalebone corsets and stays. Such clothing was unhealthy. Dress reform was about life and death. In 1952, when Amelia Bloomer created the bloomers, women who wore them were told that they were going to hell.

Where did Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Jocelyn Gage get their vision of going beyond equality to a transformation of society? Wagner asked. From seeing Native American women live it, she suggested.

The Iroquois in New York and many other Native American peoples had lineage through the female line and political authority for women. Stanton said that women should be able to leave dangerous marriages. She quoted Seneca women saying that they ruled their houses, that if a husband did not do his share of the providing, the wife told him to take his blanket and leave.

The Iroquois women had planted crops and kept a two to three year store of them. But the first thing that Christian missionaries, even Quakers, did was to try to put the men in the fields and the women in the houses.

New York established its Married Women’s Property Act allowing married women to own their own property in 1948. But the earliest state to allow married women to own property was Mississippi, where Chickasaw women owned property.

At the 1988 International Congress on Women, Alice Fletcher spoke on the legal condition of Native American women. She pointed out that husbands and wives were both distinct legal bodies, with neither losing their rights, unlike the condition of U.S. white women, in which a woman was assumed to lose her legal existence when she married.

When Matilda Jocelyn Gage spoke with Native American women, the women laughed at hearing that a white woman could not sell her home without her husband’s permission. One woman told her, “Your laws show how little your men care about their women.” Iroquois women could decide who the chief was, and could depose him. Suffragists were very aware of this, Wagner said.

Gage was adopted into the Wolf Clan of the Mohawk Nation in 1993, the same year that she was arrested for voting in her white community, Wagner noted.

transatlantic amazons

An evening plenary held at Seneca Falls picked up on the suffrage theme. Maggie McFadden of Appalachian State University told of the connections that the U.S. suffragists had with European feminists. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists traveled between countries, and some British contemporaries called them the transAtlantic Amazons (this was a slur).

The 1940 London anti-slavery convention, which refused to seat the American women delegates, was the place where Stanton and Lucretia Mott decided to hold a women’s rights convention. Stanton spent several months in England and other European countries and met feminists such as Harriet Martineau.

The European revolutions of 1848 also had an impact on the U.S. suffragists. French women said that the revolution in their country failed because it excluded women.

In the 1880s, Stanton took several trips to Europe because both one of her daughters and one of her sons were living there, and met feminists from other countries.

In 1887, Stanton and Anthony invited women from other nations — not just suffrage associations, but other women’s groups as well — to the 1880 International Women’s Congress in Washington. At that conference, Stanton said that international feminism might bring about the end of war. However, she indulged in a bit of red-baiting and said that if women were not able to gain their rights through suffrage organizations, they might ally themselves with socialists, communists, and anarchists.

As a result of this conference, Women from 10 nations continued to meet every five years until well into the 20th Century.

Suzanne Millary of Capital University said that the tendency of women to accomodate themselves to unequal conditions is perhaps the greatest challenge facing feminist today. She cited the instance of Zoe Baird, Clinton’s first nominee for attorney general, who had to withdraw because she had employed an illegal alien woman as a domestic worker.

The rights that women demanded in the Seneca Falls Declaration were a political voice, the right to be responsible and assume duties, the right to earn, and the right not to be demoralized. The goals included an equal standard for men and men and an end to male monopoly of the pulpit.

There is a similarity between Seneca Falls and the United Nations’ conference at Beijing, she said.

The Politics of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Communities

The first plenary was “The Politics of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Coummunities.”

Barbara Smith urged participants to join the criticism of the Millenium March, a gay march set for 2000 by the Human Rights Campaign and church groups. This will give evangelical Christians a a recruiting opportunity, Smith charged. The many activists who are angry that this march was announced without consultations in the movement have launched the Coalition for an Open Process.

the myth of black and white male sameness

The first plenary speaker was Charles Nero, a black gay professor at Bates College in Maine. He spoke on black and white gay men, “a less than perfect union.” Some see the origins of the American republic in the homoerotic bonds between white and black men, he said. The writings of 19th century abolitionists depict such a union in fairly erotic terms to show the essential sameness of white and black men.

The 20th century white-dominated media endlessly show friendship between white and black men as connected with peace and harmony. World War II movies, all Sidney Poitier movies, and more recent movies such as “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Trading Places” all have this theme, Nero said.

Bates College constantly reenacts this union. One of its graduates is Benjamin Mays, who became president of Morehouse College. Because Martin Luther King graduated from Morehouse, people at Bates like to claim that if they had not trained Benjamin Mays there would have been no Martin Luther King and no Civil Rights Movement. They give a Benjamin Mays award every year, and the recipient is always a white man. Bates’ retention rate of African-American men is bad; it has never graduated more than two a year.

It is time to challenge the idea of masculine sameness, Nero said, because whiteness will always be more powerful. White gay men see black gay men as punks, bucks, comic characters, or as pornographic. Masculine sameness is a myth.

African-Americans generally are not welcome in gay neighborhoods, Nero charged. Racist real estate practices, some of them by white gay men, have denied blacks the ability to buy suburban homes. These practices have also excluded lesbians and any woman who is not married to a man, Nero said. He spoke particularly about gentrification in New Orleans, which excluded black gays. Gay service businesses such as bars would not hire blacks.

In recent years, black lesbian writers have had a profound influence on the writing of black gay men, Nero said. In The Life, a book edited by Joseph Beam, was inspired by the black lesbian book Home Girls. The book has essays saying the black gay men loving other black gay men is a revolutionary act. It calls for an ethic of loving among black gay men and has a radical vision of black masculinity that gives up the macho image.

Perhaps black gay men should bond with black lesbians rather than white gay men, Nero said. The vision of a union with white men only benefits white men.

“gay” means nerdy

Andi O’Conor of the University of Colorado, Boulder, spoke on heterosexism and homophobia’s effect on students. Homophobia is fear or hatred, she said, while heterosexism is the assumption that everyone should be heterosexual; it is a set of assumptions about gender behavior. Homophobia polices and punishes behavior that is not in accord with heterosexism.

She asked members of the audience to come on stage and take “the fag test” by which students taunt each other: they had to look at their fingernails, carry a book, and tie their shoelaces. All but one of them flunked the gender test.

Students at her university now use the term “gay” to mean not cool, stupid, nerdy, or ugly, O’Conor said.

Black boys and men are called gay if they are smart. Some avoid getting good grades so they won’t look gay, she said.

Homophobia can be internalized, she added.

Even among gays, gay men who are straight-looking are more popular than sissies, according to a study of lesbian and gay college students. Even lesbians put down sissies, O’Conor said. Butch lesbians face similar problems. The best way to look gay is to look straight, O’Conor said.

You can’t work on homophobia and heterosexism without working on sexism, and you can’t work on sexism without working on heterosexism and homophobia, she said.

creating LGBT politics

Shane Phelan, chair of the Women’s Studies program at the University of New Mexico and author of the book Identity Politics, said that the title of the plenary was highly optimistic. There are few if any Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) communities in existence to have a politics, she said. If we are to have such communities, we have to create them, Phelan said.

This requires centering bisexuals and transgenders, Phelan said. There is no history of such communities. Lesbian and gay communities have sometimes been together and often separate.

There have been two models of homosexuality for the past century, Phelan said. The first is the gender inversion model, that the homosexual is more like a person of the other sex. That is still the dominant model. The second model is that the homosexual is more manly or more womanly than the heterosexual. That is the position of contemporary lesbian feminists, she said.

The first model suggests that lesbians and gays are more alike than different, and that there is a common homosexual identity. That is least problematic for white gay men, for whom homosexuality is the only thing that keeps them the dominant class, she said.

The second model has the opposite assumption, that lesbians have little in common with gay men, she said.

Phelan doesn’t think that either model is satisfactory; both collude in the dominant ideas about gender. Lesbian desire is not clearly feminist, Phelan said.

The second model fails to problematize the categories of man and woman and excludes MTF (male to female) transgenders from women’s events, and also has problems with FTMs, she said. This second model also sees bisexuals as less feminist than lesbians, as dangers to lesbian communities, and as unreliable allies.

These ideas are prey to sexual essentialism, Phelan said.

Transgenders are rejected by many gays and lesbians as an embarrassment, she said. Gay bars that welcome transgenders are in the worst neighborhoods. They, like drag queens, are relegated to entertainment and are seldom seen at podiums.

With the loss of hegemony of lesbian feminists, Phelan said, lesbian and gay communities are trying to be inclusive. But in the formulation “LGBT,” B and T are at the end of the line, on the periphery of the conception. If this is the case, everyone loses, Phelan said.

Instability is a threat if you are focused on getting an identity and are fighting for it, she said.

Choice and agency are central to bisexuality, Phelan said. Bisexuality calls for choice. It is a threat to some because it takes away the claim that we can’t help our desires.

There is pain in being told to choose between being lesbian and being heterosexual when desire is not resolved so easily, she said. There is pain when your community rejects your lover, she added.

Bisexuals can form their own communities, but this continues identity politics wihtout building communities for the future, Phelan said.

Bisexuals and transgenders are coyotes roaming the sexual frontier, she said. Both are considered double agents distrusted by both sides.

However, to claim support for transgenders without having a transgender presence is cannibalism, she said.

Bisexuals and transgenders challenge our conception of sexuality, Phelan said. Sex is implicated with gender, but not in any simple way. They are not entirely separable. Too much queer theory says that sex is not gender. It is partly about gender, but not necessarily either different genders or the same gender.

The demand for clear boundaries hurts rather than help us, she said. Boundary police are authoritarian. Our job is to question the boundaries. We must work on infecting the body politic with the dangerous virus of irreverant democracy.

Lesbians and gays have consolidated identities formed under stress, she said. But in a small town, you can’t decide who’s in our out of the community; that’s a good model.

Do you really want LGBT communities? Phelan asked. Then stop false inclusiveness. Inclusion means giving up or risking giving up a lot. But an ideology of fear and despair on bisexuals and transgenders does not help us, she said.

Lesbians do not have to give up feminist politics; indeed, we have to get feminist politics, Phelan said. We must realize that we are privileged in certain ways, in certain identities. If we give them up, there are new worlds waiting to be born, she concluded.

The Promise and Limitations of Inclusion

The Women of Color Caucus sponsored a panel, “Women’s Studies: The Promise and Limitations of Inclusion.” Patricia Washington of San Diego State University launched the panel by saying, “We all share a love of Women’s Studies.” But every time parts of her identity — lesbian, black, feminist, poor background — are not affirmed, it hurts. We are dealing now with issues that should have been taken care of in the 1960s, Washington said.

“Women’s Studies has been the most exhilarating and debilitating experience in my life except my family of origin,” Washington said.

darkening the syllabus

Angela Bowen, who teaches Women’s Studies and English at California State University Long Beach, said that faculty of color are not shunted off to the sidelines at her campus. But the promise and limitations of inclusion are often the same, she said. Often, the woman of color faculty member is the first one hired, and there are huge expectations. The new faculty member wants to teach about women of color, but it is different if she is assigned to teach only such courses; that may prove limiting, Bowen said.

Women of color faculty members can provide a different and more complex viewpoint in classes that are traditionally taught by white faculty, Bowen said. She taught a class on Women in Literature when the usual teacher was on sabbatical and, in addition to the white women’s canon, she darkened up the syllabus, Bowen said.

When she came to the campus, the class on Black Women in America had not been taught for eight years.

Women of color faculty must recognize that they could be ghettoized, she said.

When she asked to teach a senior seminar in English, Bowen looked at the catalogue to see what writers she could focus on. The list of major American writers included 22 white men and Emily Dickinson. The list of British writers included 21 white men and Virginia Woolf. She wanted to teach a seminar on Toni Morrison. She went to the man who guides new courses through the process of being adopted and he said he didn’t believe that Morrison had written enough. Bowen asked whether F. Scott FitzGerald had written enough. He asked whether there was enough secondary work on Toni Morrison, and she said there was a great deal. He pointed out that most of the writers on the list were dead, and she asked whether that was a requirement. She managed to get Morrison on the list of senior seminar subjects, so she can teach the class, and so can someone else if she is not there.

It is important that women of color teachers also teach courses that are not traditionally about women of color, she said. They need to be able to teach theory courses that are constituted as theory classes.

Women of color cannot avoid white theorists, Bowen said. Women of color always need to know everybody. The same is not true of white women, she said. If women of color teach only classes about women of color, all students are deprived and “it sends the message that our knowledge is limited by the color of our skin,” she said.

Women of color are not the only ones who can teach a course on Black Women in America. White feminists should not have waited eight years until she came to offer the class, Bowen said.

mentoring needed

Carol Robinson, who finished her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, was surprised at being the only student of color in some Women’s Studies classes, so she decided to survey students to determine the reasons.

Students take Women’s Studies classes because they want to learn about themselves, and the women of color did not find enough in them about women of color. Literature classes were somewhat of an exception to this.

These students also wanted mentorship. They wanted someone in their department to whom they could voice their anger and frustration at the university. They expected Women’s Studies professors to encourage them academically, but they also expected to be able to talk to them about the problems of being women. The students expected to have more than two hours a week of talk outside of class with a mentor. (All of the professors in the room groaned.)

Students of color and white students had similar expectations, but students of color did not have mentors. Most said this was because there were few faculty members of color and they couldn’t be so vulnerable as to talk about race with white faculty members. So they looked elsewhere, mostly to their own relatives, for mentorship, even if those relatives had little academic background.

Robinson said the professors she spoke with were surprised to hear about the students’ expectations, and that the students had no idea how much work the professors had to do outside of class. Both sides need to be clear about what can be offered, Robinson said.

Jennifer Esquivel-Parker, a graduate student in political science at the San Diego State University, said that some feminist legal theorists’ critiques silence lesbians and women of color. She cited Catharine MacKinnon and Robin West.

MacKinnon sees sex as subordination, but if she looked at lesbians she might have developed another model, Esquivel-Parker said. She said that the focus on sexual subordination does not focus enough on race. For instance, MacKinnon says that black women are raped more often than white women, but she should have explained why in more detail, Esquivel-Parker said.

crossover with Jewish women

Sherry Gorelick of Rutgers University said that two years ago, at the NWSA conference at Skidmore, there were two panels on multiculturalism, one mostly attended by women of color and the other mostly attended by Jews; there was no crossover. She was heartened that this panel included both.

Jewish women have been involved in all aspects of the women’s movement from suffrage through birth control, through peace and lesbian rights, Gorelick said. In current wave feminism, there have been many Jewish women such as Betty Friedan, Phyllis Chesler, Adrienne Rich, and Gloria Steinem, but there is a problem of invisibility as Jewish women. The U.S. feminist movement has not acknowledged the participation of Jewish women as Jewish women, Gorelick said.

Nineteenth Century white feminists rarely spoke out in defense of Jews and often expressed anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views, she said. Elizabeth Cady Stanton once introduced a resolution on religion by saying that Judaism had precepts contrary to what had been revealed by Christ.

Some Jewish women also have internalized anti-Semitism, Gorelick said.

At Skidmore, Susan Koppelman presented a paper saying that there were fewer stories by Jewish women in anthologies in 1996 than in 1956. Starting around 1990, Jewish women began to disappear from anthologies. Whoever the gatekeepers are decide that if they bring in a new group, they have to drop another group.

What does inclusion mean? Gorelick asked. There is diversity among Jewish women, some are black, some are Sephardic. There is Kissinger Judaism for those who advise the powerful and kiske Judaism, which is mostly about food. Women want to go beyond these forms.

I want to be part of an anti-Semitic and anti-racist canon, Gorelick said. I want to transform Women’s Studies and society. I want us to read each other’s work.

We must analyze the Christian basis of American society, she said. The U.S. nation state is not really secular, it is based on Christian assumptions; they underlie it like whiteness.

Many Jews fear fascism, she said. A fascist-related form of Christianity is on the rise; it puts us all in the same boat. Studying fascism should be part of Women’s Studies, Gorelick urged.

dialogue during backlash

Betty Harris of the University of Oklahoma said that we are becoming more entrenched in a period of academic backlash. Reproductive rights are being hit. Affirmative action has been attacked and diminished beyond recognition.

Can we negotiate a dialogue of difference? she asked. Can we recognize difference without marginalization or assimilation?

Most universities are in the post-affirmative action period. Women of color are relatively isolated. Junior faculty are necessarily preoccupied with tenure requirements. If the woman of color faculty member is doing research or teaching about women of color, she is not teaching general classes in theory. Women Studies in strongest in the humanities, but many women of color are in the social sciences and education.

She teaches about women and development in Africa, and she finds that the students are most interested in genital mutilation and polygamy, but she tries to require them to learn all of the social factors that shape the African women’s lives and those that shape the lives of women in the U.S.

White women are much more numerous than women of color in universities, especially in higher positions, Harris said. Women of color must network with them for tenure and promotions. It is often a dominant-subordinate relationship.

It is difficult for Women’s Studies to keep true to its activist origins, she said. Junior faculty have such heavy research demands that they have no time to work in economically depressed communities. Many university campuses are far from minority communities, which accentuates the problem.

Activism brings faculty members no rewards. Universities are inherently conservative, Harris said. They try to transform people from disadvantaged backgrounds into middle-class people. She noted how important student activism had been in the Civil Rights Movement and against the Vietnam War.

It depressed her that this year there were campus riots over bars closing.

Much theory now is ivory tower; it bears little relationship to the social reality of women, Harris said. If it is grounded in reality, it is not seen as theory.

White women have been too silent about affirmative action while it has been under attack; this contributes to the tension between white women and women of color, Harris said.

There is a tendency for admissions offices to say that the targets for women have not been met, but those for minorities have been met. But, although more white women than white men are denied tenure, more minority faculty than white women are denied tenure, she said. Only the stellar survive. This is a deterrent to activism.

Harris is finding tension among white and black heterosexual students along the lines of the old “they are taking our men” argument. They cannot communicate.

However, she said that support for Women’s Studies is coming from some unlikely quarters. Miss Black Oklahoma is the head of a new black women’s group at her campus that has some feminist basis.

after the master’s tools fail

Christine Brinkley of Bates College said this is a dialectic of the master’s tools that have failed and of creativity that succeeds. Every year there are anti-Semitic incidents in New England colleges, she said. At Colby College a few years ago, someone put a swastika on the door of a faculty member whose family died in the Holocaust. The school was shut the next day and students were ordered to see the movie “Schindler’s List” and go to a teach-in on anti-Semitism. At Bates, anti-Semitism is not as overt among the faculty and students. But a student who went to buy Passover wine at a local liquor store was laughed at. The college complained, and the person who had laughed was fired.

Women of color may also take the flack for Jewish women, because they are not always identifiable, Brinkley said.

There is no separate white history without blacks or Jews, she said.

When you are referring students to Women’s Studies programs, refer them to inclusive programs, she said.

In the discussion that followed, Betty Tallen said that every woman academic must make a commitment to have at least one or two books by people of color in every class, no matter what the subject.

Patricia Washington said that white women shouldn’t teach books about women of color without knowing women of color.

Changing Bodies: Disability, Chronic Illness, Aging, Size and Identity

The Disability Caucus presented a workshop, “Changing Bodies: Disability, Chronic Illness, Aging, Size, and Identity.” Susan Koppelman launched the panel by noting that the caucus had asked NWSA for a sign language interpreter, a detachable microphone, plain chairs as well as desks, and a sign outside the door asking women wearing perfume not to come in. None of those conditions had been fulfilled. However, the panel said that this year’s NWSA compared favorably in accomodations with other years’ conferences.

Physical changes can threaten a girl or woman’s sense of identity, Koppelman said. Many changes caused by illness are not covered by insurance; fixing them is considered cosmetic, and disabled women often cannot afford to pay for them. Disabled women are often impoverished.

Betty Tallen told how she had a mysterious illness when she was twenty-four that looked like mononucleosis but wasn’t. It ended in a few months and she forgot it. Then it occurred again in 1986. Now she knows that it was chronic fatigue immune deficiency syndrome, and there is no medication for it. It never occurred to her how others saw her; they didn’t realize that she was trying four times harder to keep up normal appearances.

Some dabbling in New Age theories is very unhelpful for disabled women, Tallen said. There is a Calvinist strain in New Age thinking that says you are responsible for whatever happens to you; you wanted to be disabled.

She didn’t realize how sick she had been in ’86 until she was at an NWSA disability workshop in 1995.

In 1996, she was in a car accident. Her head was thrown against the window of the car. She had a brain injury and, Tallen says, “I lost 30 I.Q. points.” She couldn’t spell, she wasn’t able to shop, and she didn’t remember names.

People at work were terrible, saying things like “you never were organized,” or “everybody forgets things.” They were trying to be reassuring, but they didn’t understand when she tried to explain that she couldn’t do serious writing anymore.

She lost her job as an academic administrator, and her sense of self changed.

How traumatic it is “to try to maintain a relationship with people who expect me to be things I can’t be any longer,” Tallen said. “Some people can’t deal with me at all.” She can’t work 40 hours a week any more. “Some feminists see me as no longer trustworthy because I can’t put in the hours” that activism demands, she said. There is no quick fix, she can’t read or write serious academic writing.

Annette Kolodny said that she had had rheumatoid arthritis since her teens. It has made a slow progression as she aged. She swam in the river of denial. Her academic life — until recently she was a dean — took enormous energy, and only her closest friends and her husband knew the cost. She never thought of herself as ill.

Then menopause accelerated her rheumatoid arthritis so that in two years she did not recognize herself, she did not move the same or look the same. She went from 115 llbs. to 96 llbs. She couldn’t lift a pillow or a telephone. Her husband has to lift her to go to the bathroom at night.

“It was shocking to me,” Kolodny said. As a dean in the college of humanities, she had participated in designing new buildings to accessible. The Americans with Disabilities’ Act code is helpful for a limited number of disabilities, she said, only the most obvious ones, for people who cannot see or hear or who use a wheelchair. “I can’t open a bathroom door with a doorknob because I have no grip strength,” she said. A paraplegic can’t open a door with a lever, but needs an electric door.

Arizona, like most states, is moving to HMOs. HMOs at first meant health maintenance organizations, but now means health management organizations, she noted. They did not lower the cost of health care; they increased the salaries of a few executives and the earnings of stockholders. They understand acute or traumatic care, not other kinds of care.

Our help system is incapable of dealing with long-term or chronic care, Kolodny said. There are no caretakers for the people who need them. The newest drugs are the most expensive, and the HMOs won’t pay for them. One-third of the population has a chronic condition, she said, including arthritis, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. A large majority of those with chronic conditions are women. Sixty-six percent of the disabled are unemployed; society has not found a means of employing them.

Barbara Hillyer, author of a book on disabilities (Feminism and Disability, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), said that when she was over 60 she was diagnosed as having rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and an auto-immune disease. She had been aware that there was a problem much earlier.

Her daughter has multiple disabilities, so she was familiar with the disability rights movement and when she experienced disabilities herself she was ready.

Hillyer says she intellectualizes the disability issues and writes about them. Her identity has not changed. “I have gained a lot of weight, but I blame the clothing manufacturers, not myself. I see a cane as a tool, not a stigma.” However, she said that if her disability had come earlier in her life, her response probably would have been different.

Her family of origin highly valued coping calmly, they accepted and dealt with serious illness. That helped shape her own attitude, Hillyer said. A friend of hers who came from an abusive family saw a disability when it came as a catastrophe and thought she should kill herself. Hillyer believes the difference in attitudes comes from family differences.

She was able to reinforce her identity as someone who copes well. But would she cope well with losing her mind? she asked. Probably not, she said.

lesbians deal with disability

How do lesbians deal with having a disability? asked Margaret Howe, who uses crutches. “There’s the myth of the strong, independent lesbian.” She was very athletic, and the disability “drives me nuts,” she said. “I want to push myself. I have vertigo, and I fell twice. I can’t take chances.” She also has hereditary hearing loss. She noticed she was the only one at an evening Kate Clinton performance using an assisted hearing device, but felt sure that she was not the only one in the arena who needed one. “We have to acknowledge what we need,” Howe said.

Insurance does not pay for eyeglasses or hearing aids, she noted. Good hearing aids can cost $3,000 for both ears.

You need an advocate when you seek medical treatment, because you may be too sick to advocate for yourself, Howe said.

Susan Koppelman said that she had faced many challenges to her identity from her illness. She had tried to be supersexy in the heterosexual world, and had been molested a lot. Then, with illness, she became really fat and had to adjust. She has learned that being large gives a kind of power; people remember you.

She has had severe episodes of depression since she was young. For a long time, she didn’t think it was a disability, though it cost her her sexuality and her husband. She thought she should die. Then, when she read Barbara Hillyer’s book, she thought that she did not have to be useful in the same way she had been. We must hold on the belief that we have the right to live whatever state we are in, Koppelman said.

Kolodny said the vision of herself as an independent, competent person was hard to maintain when she had to depend on other people. She can no longer drive a car, so she must depend on other people’s schedules. It’s hard for her to maintain the same demands on her physical appearance, to both be stylish and be able to go to the bathroom by herself, because she can’t manipulate a zipper or buttons.

She can concentrate only four to five hours a day, but she still is teaching full-time. The rest of the time she totally collapses, but only her husband sees it. Everybody else makes requests or demands. Also, “I had a sense of pleasure and pride” because of being attractive, and she also saw that as a tool for getting power for projects at the university. This is not the case anymore.

leaders with needs

Tallen commented on how feminist leaders are not supposed to have any needs. They are supposed to be “magic mamas,” as Joanna Russ wrote in “Mamic Mamas and Trembling Sisters, Fear and Helplessness in the Women’s Movement.”

Hillyer asked how feminists with disabilities can tell the truth about their bodies if they build lives based on being overfunctioning; it’s easier to do five hours of overfunctioning than to get a balance, she said.

Kolodny says she tells her students if she is taking a new drug to see whether she is confused or showing any other side effects.

“We need to say what we need, and we need to accept that some people can’t accomodate us,” Koppelman said. But we need to talk more about whether we should get angry when they don’t.

A woman in the audience said that she cares for her retarded sister. There is no professional space for talking about things like that. We’re never supposed to.

Kolodny said that 10 million people in this country need assistance in basic things like dressing themselves, but only 2 million people are getting it. Everything said at the session is an argument for single-payer, full health coverage, she added.

Hillyer said we all need to have at least 20 friends because they all can’t say yes when we need them. We must tell each other when we are tired, and when someone has said that, we must honor that, she said.

Feminist Science Education

At the plenary on feminist science education, Bonnie Spanier, who teaches molecular biology at the State University of New York at Albany, said she was shocked to discover when she was young that the history of science was full of sexism, racism, and imperialism. Biology had been used to justify slavery and to keep women out of higher education She loves the T-shirt “I Dream of a Feminist Science Education.”

A feminist science education must challenge beliefs in inherent biological differences, Spanier said. It must address cultural biases and ask what the term “true” means.

Scientific American recently had an article on feminist science that fairly accurately represented feminist theories of science, but it was placed next to an article on creationism in a section labelled, “anti-science controversies.”

There is an overemphasis on genes as the cause of diseases such as breast cancer, Spanier said. There is no legal protection for discrimination based on genetic make-up. The National Breast Cancer Coalition is educating advocates to sit on funding boards for research projects, so the research won’t be skewed, she said.

race and science

Evelyn Hammond, professor of the history of science at MIT, who is writing a book on race and science, said that the discussion of race at NWSA has been the most contentious and the most successful discussion she knows of in academe.

A lot of people say race should not matter, Hammond said, but it has mattered so it has to matter. The idea of a color-blind world is a prematurely imagined community.

Scientists are supposed to be modest witnesses, invisible, and are supposed to have no culture. The denial of subjectivity is supposed to be a guarantee of purity, she said.

Students at schools like MIT think they can get away from the messy complexity of programs like women’s studies, Hammond said.

“My sex and race rendered me suspect there,” she said. She left the graduate program in physics in 1980. She thought perhaps she lacked the will, or was overly sensitive. But then she learned how white male-dominated science has tried to de-race women of color in science.

She told of a PBS show on biochemist Linda Jordan, an African-American woman of working class origins. After going to black colleges, she went to MIT, where she was harassed by fellow students, who in one instance destroyed her project. Another African-American woman had to take her lab books home to prevent sabotage. Not until she did post-doctoral studies in Paris did she have scientific colleagues who treated her like a colleague. She couldn’t imagine a future at MIT, so she went to teach in North Carolina, where she had to raise the money to build a lab. Even on this show no one asked her why she wanted to be a scientist.

In American science there is tremendous pressure never to talk about who you are and where you’re from, Hammond said. The cost of this for African-American women and other women of color is tremendous. African-American women and Native American women have the lowest participation in science and engineering, she said. There is an abscence of mentors or peer support. This has to change, Hammond said.

diversity in science

Sandra Harding of UCLA, who has written several books on a feminist philosophy of science, said that the literature of women and the environment and sustainable development should be used in science and technology classes as well as economics, political science, and anthropology classes. Scientific and technological education should be available to all of those who will be consumers of science and technology.

Diversity in science is important in ensuring that a variety of questions will get raised, Harding said, noting that the Food and Drug Administration had excluded women from studies on aspirin until recently.

We need to understand the costs of western science on women around the world; we in the West mostly get the benefits, Harding said. There has been maldevelopment and de-development, with exploitation of women’s labor and the land, she said. We need to understand that there are different kinds of knowledge systems, such as different kinds of medicine, she said. We need to challenge the idea of a pure science that is considered more important than technology such as agriculture, she said. We need a science that is politically engaged, accountable, and teachable, Harding concluded.


At the plenary on Activism, Marcia Anna Gomez, founder of Alma de Mujer Center for Social Change in Austin and board member of the Indigenous Women’s Network, said that indigenous women are reclaiming their historical roles. To her, activism is matriarchal, and means safeguarding life for future generations. Feminism means nurturing on all levels, all of life, Gomez said.

Her family of origin was poor and exposed to contamination. Her father fought against illegal dumping by Dow Chemical.

Most indigenous people see earth as a sacred mother, she said. Some still have matriarchal clans and see themselves as guardians of the earth.

The U.S. Constitution is derived from the Iroquois but unlike them does not include a place for women, Gomez said. We need to have women elders be able to veto the decisions of Congress. If they could, we would not see the greed and exploitation we have now, she said. The path we are on leads to the annihilation of the human race. We need to find the path to salvation.

The Indigenous Women’s Network held its first meeting in 1985 and now holds biennial meetings for North and South American and Australian and New Zealand peoples.

She directs a retreat center, mostly for women’s groups, where they mentor young Native women.

The Cheyenne say that a nation is not broken until the hearts of its women are in the ground, she said.

Constance Baker Motley, senior United States district judge, Southern District of New York, who worked for 20 years on the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund staff, at first for Thurgood Marshall, detailed the history of court decisions on desegregation.

The 21st Century will be focused on class issues, Motley said.

Elizabeth Toledo, vice president for action of N.O.W., said that N.O.W. has worked against the Promise Keepers and for abortion rights and helped women win a large settlement for sexual harassment at Mitsubishi.

There is a shrinking number of core supporters who speaking up on feminist issues in the political arena, Toledo said. Therefore, N.O.W. has launched Campaign 2000, a plan to elect 2000 feminists to various offices in the year 2000.

NWSA will hold its next annual conference in Alburquerque, June 17-20, 1999. The 2000 conference will be at Simmons College in Boston.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Aug/Sep 1998

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