"Women's studies? What are you going to do with that?"
For six years of grad school, this is the kind of scrutiny that Revenge of the Women's Studies Professor author Bonnie Morris faced while pursuing a PhD. in women's history. Bonnie, however, got the best revenge on her critics by enjoying a successful career as a professor, writer, and performer.
Now that we are in the midst of Women's History Month, I talked with Bonnie about the importance of studying women's history and the changes she's observed in the field over the course of her 25-year career.
This year’s theme for Women’s History Month is “Our history is our strength.” What makes women’s history unique, and why is it important to have a month dedicated to celebrating it?
Women’s history is too often overlooked, absent, or trivialized in our schoolbooks and public images. Why?—well, one quick answer is that women have been seen as “private” where men were “public.” Even now, many religious faiths teach that women should be covered up, modest, and subjected to male authority. Much of what has happened to women makes folks uncomfortable—so much is about the body, and where real oppression and violence occur, women have had to fight back against male control. Thus, even to report truthfully about our heritage as women feels controversial to many people.
Men and women are still not equal in many workplaces. What should we do to change this?
There has to be greater reporting on discrimination at work. Although I am not a fan of public shaming, where practices are unfair, that needs to be recorded and made known. Men need to understand that women’s progress does not come at their expense—that is, a woman’s advancement is not “reverse discrimination” or a sign of unearned politically-correct favoritism. Women do struggle to balance work and family because for all our talk about family values and children, our work calendar is not friendly to family needs—we have no day care or maternity leave at many worksites.
How has the women’s studies arena changed since you first started teaching?
Women’s studies is now mainstream! Men and women take it because it offers a path to basic humanities credits during college, not because they aspire to be trailblazing feminist activists—this is both a gain and a loss. More students than ever are exposed to women’s history, but they’re in my office hours to complain about grades, not to ask about a career in justice for women and girls.
Over the years, has our society become more accepting of men who take women’s studies courses? What progress has been made, and what barriers still persist?
Men in my classes are SUPER. They are open and honest, hardworking and cool. MANY come to this topic as sons of single moms—they see and respect those sacrifices. A sad question is, where are the dads? Not raising kids! Unfortunately, instead of crediting women who “do it all,” we tend to see cultural anxiety that women are becoming too masculine (entering careers in sports, the military, law) while men are not encouraged to do women’s work (still underpaid, usually). We look at men who genuinely wish to work with children as potential pedophiles, not talented teachers. Yet we expect men to be parents. WE don’t let them do so as a profession.
For college women who take women’s studies courses, are involved with women-focused organizations, and pursue more traditionally male-dominated majors, what advice do you offer for battling the stereotypes?
Women should keep journals, for one thing, to wrestle with their feelings/progress/job situations in a private talk-back space. It’s wise to keep a record of any sexist stereotypes or attitudes you encounter daily, and to spend some time considering how to respond before taking action. I use humor, as well as good cheer—people are afraid of humorless women’s libbers, right?—but then I write my letter to the editor or otherwise point out unfair tactics.
In your book, you talk about how not only men, but also women mock women’s studies courses. What impact does this have on the progress of gender equality?
It’s popular now for ambitious, conservative women activists of all ages to say “Thanks, feminism—now get out of my way—you’re retro.” The assumption we’ve all made it and no further change is necessary lets affluent, empowered women vote against women’s rights! Homophobia is still a #1 issue: women fear that just reading about feminism will make them gay, which is ridiculous. But it also shows that “being gay” remains a demonized identity in our culture. Most women who mock women’s studies would flunk a women’s history test; it’s knowledge they don’t feel the need to get ahead, whereas we’re all supposed to know about Benjamin Franklin.
What would you say is the most important reason why a college student should enroll in a women’s studies course?
HONOR THY MOTHER. Hey, that’s the only one of the 10 Commandments that actually mentions a woman’s role in sustaining civilization. We shouldn’t only learn about our fathers’ legacies of work, struggle, and creative power. After all, the world is reproduced through women’s bodies.