Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Punished for being Feminist?

I had an uncomfortable experience on campus this week, and I’m not sure if I’m ready to talk about it. But I’m going to try. 

I had a group presentation for the topic we were assigned, that is, to compare a positivist epistemology to a feminist one, in the context of social research.

And so the controversy starts. I used the F word.

Personally, feminism is one of the most important concepts I have encountered in my life. But let’s talk about the assignment.

Feminist research is characterized as being reflexive—it helps to involve the research participants to understand the topic and their role in the project. It strives to respect research participants as humans. The ultimate goal is to collect the untold stories of previously marginalized people—yes, that could be women. It could be people of colour, or queer people.

Do you get what I am saying? When someone is doing feminism, they’re working to include the excluded, to tell stories that had been repressed, to affirm the humanity of others.

My Social Research class first disappointed me on Day One, when our lecturer was giving us an overview of course concepts. When the feminism slide came up, she smirked and said something to the effect of, “I was never interested in feminist research. Why would I only want to study women?”

The information on her slides pertained to the Second Wave of feminism, and needed to be updated from the 1970s. (I know I owe a huge debt to the Second Wave, but come on. Let’s talk about Alice Walker, and Ani DiFranco, and the Guerrilla Girls, and the Jezebels, and the writers at Feministing and Bitch Magazine, about Kate Harding and Latoya Peterson, about transrights groups, about the movements converging now. The terms we use are consent and intersectionality and power and privilege. Let’s talk about Fat Acceptance and ordained Catholic women. Let's read Inga Muscio and Judith Butler and Sue Monk Kidd. Can we please, for the love of God, talk about bell hooks and love as a revolutionary act?)

I’ve only grown more disappointed as the semester has gone on. Other groups were assigned the Feminist Epistemology in regards to Social Research, and gave presentations with the most hackneyed (and sometimes most bizarre) stereotypes. One group represented Feminism as a woman who feels that all women should wear crowns. Ten points for a visual aid, I guess, but 0 points for accuracy.

My group and I were determined to present feminist research accurately; we wanted to represent positivism well, too. What I am saying is, we took our work seriously, and didn’t resort to the stereotypes of burning bras or hairy armpits to get a laugh.

I was one of the presenters of feminist research. The moment we changed the PowerPoint slide to the F word, I watched members of my class shift uncomfortably and heard laughs. I stood at the podium presenting scientific processes and heard snorts every time I said “feminist.”

The lecturer was no help—not that I expected her to be. She had a hand in fostering this hostile environment toward a well-established concept in social science, so she didn’t try to help us deconstruct the web of preconceived notions among our peers.

My group was the third to present. My (obviously biased) opinion is that we were well-prepared and clear-spoken, and did a fine job presenting on our topic.

(Once again) In my opinion, in that class I have seen some presentations with a lot of bells and whistles—costumes, elaborate scenarios, jokes to flatter our lecturer—that perhaps skirted around some key conceptual points, or as I have said, leaned heavily on stereotypes to get a notion across to the group. I’d like to note that groups like this got no follow-up questions from the lecturer.

Well, at the end of our presentation we got a prof’s comment: That we didn’t do the assignment right.

Obviously I am not going into the nitty-gritty details, because a presentation about epistemologies is actually pretty dry. And so I’m not giving the WHOLE picture here. But this is my blog so I get to speculate: I feel punished for being a feminist. Well, I feel punished for presenting this concept in a fair light, and not mocking it. 

Because the lecturer has stated her bias, that she finds feminism useless in social research, and you only have to say the F word once in that class to find out where most of my peers stand.

This goes beyond a personal let-down for me. My peers and I are being trained to conduct social research—indeed, our project for the year is to conduct interviews among vulnerable populations. We’ll be sent to talk to unemployed high school non-completers, or people struggling with addiction, or children who are growing up in a children’s home.

There are some ugly stereotypes attached to all of these groups, and my classmates can’t hear the word “feminist” without sneering. I’m scared for us. We’re not ready to be among vulnerable populations.

One thing I will say is, I got this really sweet t-shirt out of the deal:

It was a visual aid for the presentation (positivists had tees that said “This is what a t-shirt looks like”), but it’s relevant in my life, too.

Hi, I’m Laura Eppinger and I love my family, friends and boyfriend to pieces. I am a huge nerd for a YA fantasy novel or Battlestar Galactica. I read at least one novel a week, and knit and craft whenever I have time. I like to sing, loudly, while I do the dishes. I am a feminist. This is what a feminist looks like:



  1. I'll use another 'F' word here. That's fucked up, plain and simple. For a lecturer to allow her bias to show so completely, and to dismiss feminism out of hand, is ridiculous.

    Somewhere I read that a lot of young women don't associate themselves as feminists because they think of the Second Wave as well. Like you can't be feminine and still believe in women's rights.

    I'm proud of you for doing the assignment how you felt was right. Any chance you can persuade her to change her mind?

  2. I'm sorry you had a bad experience, but that's awesome you did your presentation despite the prejudice of the lecturer. You rock!

  3. Thank you, Crookses! I'm going to wait to see what grade our group gets before talking to the prof--like I said, I think we did well in front of the class, so if I see something fishy in the final marks it'll be a good platform to go talk to her.

    I really wish I could hang out at A Room Of One's Own right about now...

  4. Tough to stand up to a room full of people in a place that's still sort of new. Way to keep it real, Eppinger.

  5. Laur, you're such an inspiration. I'm so glad you did what you KNEW was right in face of that stinky professor and the whole, judgmental class.

    Love this: "When someone is doing feminism, they’re working to include the excluded, to tell stories that had been repressed, to affirm the humanity of others."

  6. Btw - you are so beautiful. SAfrica sun is being good to you. <3

  7. You all are too kind! I don't deserve it. (And I kind of expected some anti-feminist trolls. Woohoo no trolls here!)

  8. Hi there, if you would like to share this experience again we would love to post it on - please have a look at the site and see if you're keen. Don't give up. Use experiences like this to remind you of how important and necessary feminism is.

  9. Wow. Apart from anything else, that is one of the most deeply unprofessional and ignorant bits of teaching I ever heard of. Does the department know about this? Does the Dean?

  10. Unfortunately, I never took this experience to any higher-ups of the department--not the least because this prof IS a higher-up! I decided to wait to see the grade, and every group in the class got an A, essentially, so I let it go. Seeing that our group's grade didn't suffer in any official way, it made me question the case I could present. (I was also considering dropping out of UCT at this time, for this and other reasons, so I didn't feel emotionally strong enough to raise a case. Ugh, this first semester was very rough on me.)