All the Quietly Brave and Brilliant Young Women

amywink October 14th, 2017

At the end of the spring semester of 2014 that I wrote about last week (All the Kind and Thoughtful Young Men), it was a quiet young woman who waited for me at my office, with flowers and a card of thanks, who told me she appreciated how even though I had been going through my own personal troubles, I had always been there for them. She was a young woman I hadn’t been sure had enjoyed the class, though she had always attended and sat in the front row, but I was pleased and thankful she had made the time to thank me for being present, even though I could have easily not been. I was reminded again how important being a feminist teacher is for young women, even now when sexism seems a problem of the distant past, though clearly that was a mistake given the election and the blatant sexism that played out in the election coverage of Hilary Clinton. But still, even in her defeat, Hilary continues to show up and it’s the showing up that maybe most important thing for young women today. To show up and keep showing up even though larger culture continues to ask women to be small, to be quiet, to take less and to quit because it is hard and unfair. and wouldn’t it be easier if you just decided that yes, women were less and didn’t deserve equality?

But Hilary Clinton is a better person in her failure than some people are in victory and it is being a better, stronger person that shows young women the power they can gain from steadily working toward the ownership of their lives. Watching someone do a difficult thing, to survive an unfair system, and stand up after unfair outcome, teaches us to do the difficult thing we want to do, even if it might not work out. Even if we might go down in defeat, we can still try and we can get up afterward and keep working toward what we want as human beings. It is not watching someone who sails through life easily with no care in the world that creates the inner drive and self-determination to become whatever a young woman wants to be, despite what patriarchal culture keeps whispering to her under its paternalistic breath. Japtha’s daughter may have been sacrificed for her father’s victory in battle, but it’s the Hebrew women who celebrate her life every year and no doubt reminded her father of his continued failure and defeat.

As a feminist teacher, I have encountered so many young women who have been told, either overtly or covertly, to be less than they are, to find a small life, to define themselves only by a very narrow measure, and I have listened to so many young women tell me the dangerous moments of their lives, how they were starving, or injured, or assaulted, for just trying to be. In all of my classes, from first year writing, to advanced composition, from sophomore literature surveys, to advanced literary specialties like women’s autobiography, it has been my job as feminist teacher to show these young women the counter-narrative to patriarchal male-washing of literature and history. Here are the stories of women who may have been forgotten but nevertheless existed, here are the alliances formed to create networks between women across class and race, and within class and race, to subvert the dominant narrative of patriarchy, that women have no value aside from what they can give the patriarchy, that women have to compete with each other for the spoils allowed to them, that women must become One Kind of Woman to succeed in the world that only allows one definition. But an unfair system does not have to be right, and unfair system recognized as unfair and arbitrary and thus defeated by constantly hacking away at the pillars that culture rests precariously upon. If a system is unfair, the problem is not personal, but systemic, and the solution is in the personal stories we tell as counter-narrative to the patriarchy so desperately wants young women to believe.

Every narrative that says women deserve food, that women may live to the contrary, that women are allowed, and do not have to choose between being strong, or brilliant, or beautiful, or bold, or independent and must instead choose the smaller thing our culture allows instead of all the great things they might also become. Every narrative I have taught is a story that tells them they get to write their own lives and not just be characters in someone else’s. Of course, the danger is that a feminist teacher must be a kind of Wonder Woman, doing everything and anything perfectly, but I have found that’s not what women students actually want. They don’t want another One Kind of Allowable Woman. They’d prefer to see an authentic person who is living her life, so they in turn can be authentic and live their own.

In the summer of 1999, I moved from Texas to the small town of Emporia, Kansas, where a friend had helped me get a job after being fired from the university where I was asked to teach women’s autobiography and summarily punished for doing so. I was also encouraged to fight the dismissal by many eager to martyr me for their cause and simultaneously discouraged from speaking about it by those who feared I’d never find a position if I got labeled as a “troublemaker”.

Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t.

But my dear friend bravely stepped up and called someone she knew and got me a job and I was able to shake off the dust of that unwelcoming place and

I can’t actually say the job was better, but the people were kinder and the Flint Hills so enormous and the tall grass prairie so vast, that I was able to rest some my experience and remember what I loved about teaching. It was a small college and I had many repeating students in the two years I taught there. I was able to teach a class in Women’s Diaries and take my entire class to the Kansas Museum of History where we toured the frontier exhibit and tried to lift the iron cooking pots of the pioneers–It was clear to one of my students that she’d probably just have died on the way to Oregon because she couldn’t even move the pot. I was really glad to have had that vibrant teaching experience with my small group of young women students. One of those young women, also named Amy, had been in many of my classes, quiet and tentative, but so thoughtful in her writing. She struggled with the image she had been taught, that smart girls were not the pretty girls, that cheerleaders were not the smart girls, that women were allowed only the one thing that identified their being and the choice had better be a wise one because you never knew what might happen to a smart girl, but pretty girls were rarely alone. I remember her face when I discussed how definitions of femininity restrict the choices young women have been able to make in history and I could see the light dawning and the choices spreading out before her in a way she’d never thought about before. I still think of that student, and many others and I am always glad to have stood before them and been present and authentic in my life for them.

I left that position in May of 2001 but I kept in touch with some of the students from my advanced writing class and my women’s diaries class through email. I was not really surprised to see an email from Amy because she had often spoken with me about her life and I had watched her become brave and brilliant in her time at college. What surprised me was what she asked of me. She wrote to say that she was about to get married but that both she and her fiance were having doubts about marrying, but everyone around them kept telling them they were just having cold feet and it would be okay as soon as the wedding was over. And she wanted to ask my advice, she wanted to ask for help. I think she was asking for help to say no. Why else reach out to a teacher no longer in your life and ask about such an important decision? Perhaps, because I had been authentic. I was an unrepentant but happy-go-lucky feminist, a smart woman who lived on her own, and was perfectly happy and capable of doing it.

I wrote her back carefully, explaining that it certainly sounded like she and her fiance were carefully considering their choices and it was important to understand that if both parties were concerned, then the choice was up to them, not everyone around them who might hope otherwise. I wrote that it was up to the both of them to decide but it was important to remember that it was a lot easier to get out of a wedding than it was to get out of a marriage. And I sent my email off wondering if I’d said the right thing.

Several weeks later, she sent a happy reply, explaining they had decided to cancel the wedding, she had gotten a teaching job in a small town in Western Kansas, and was heading there herself with her new Rottweiler puppy, and she thanked me profusely for everything.

I was happy I’d answered wisely, and very grateful to have been that brave young woman’s teacher.

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