Penn Feminists Look Back, and Beyond

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Self-proclaimed “feminist evangelist” Jessica Valenti faced a packed house in Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge. The author and blogger had a question for the assembly gathered to mark the 40th anniversary of Penn’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program. “How many people here identify as a feminist?” she asked.

Hands shot up across the room, accounting for well over three quarters of the audience, and Valenti smiled broadly. “That’s amazing! I’d like to Instagram that!” she exclaimed.

That gesture of solidarity may have been most remarkable for the diversity it masked. Women of many generations, backgrounds, and scholarly pursuits converged on campus to examine issues related to gender equity at GSWS’s February conference. And as each conversation sparked another, an unofficial theme emerged: The Past, Present, and Future of Feminism—or even, at moments, the Past versus the Future.

Valenti, whose appearance at the conference had many undergraduates buzzing, represented the present moment. The 35-year-old founder of the popular blog, and author of such books as 2007’s Full Frontal Feminism, is a standard-bearer of “fourth-wave feminism,” a 21st century evolution of the feminist movement that uses the Internet and social media as key organizing tools.

Her keynote address—the Judith Roth Berkowitz Endowed Lecture in Women’s Studies—tackled “purity, sexism, and activism” with humor, frankness, and a feminist analysis familiar to readers of her 2009 book The Purity Myth. Valenti took aim at cultural messages that conflate young women’s worth with their sexuality, instead of qualities like kindness, compassion, and social engagement. She argued that some political conservatives wield notions of “purity” to reverse hard-won rights for women, namely in terms of reproductive justice and sex education.

Valenti also insisted that despite frequent media portrayals of young women as confused, apathetic, and powerless, young women in fact are doing feminist work every day, even if they don’t always describe it as such. She suggested that meaningful feminist action can run the gamut from working to get more feminists elected to public office, to simply engaging people who have different mindsets in conversation and debate.

Her talk seemed particularly to energize the conference’s younger attendees.

“She’s speaking to younger people, and she really resonates with them in a way that I don’t think that anyone else right now does,” reflected Kate Revak, a GSWS student in the School of Liberal and Professional Studies.

If Valenti is riding feminism’s latest wave, earlier ones were represented by the vanguard of women’s rights at Penn: a group of people who helped bring Women’s Studies and the Penn Women’s Center (PWC) into being.

“Bringing back some of those early activists felt really special,” says Demie Kurz, co-director of Women’s Studies and the Alice Paul Center for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. “We can’t forget the incredible effort, activism, and courage that it took to get women into the academy, and specifically here at Penn.”

Former PWC director Carol Tracy CGS’76, former associate director Gloria Gay SW’80, and current associate director Jessica Mertz joined Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Peggy Sanday and Joann Mitchell, Penn’s vice president for institutional affairs, to discuss their experiences at the University, including moments they were particularly proud of over the past few decades.

When she came to the PWC in the mid-1980s, Gay recalled, “there were rumors of all of the rapes, but there was something going on, there was something in the air … Women were taking charge: we were yelling and screaming and going to every meeting we could go to.

“For me, it was the beginning of the revolution,” Gay continued. “Black women had no voice on campus at all, just non-existent … and I got the chance to be the person they could come to and tell everything. For me that was the start of who I am as a black woman.”

Mitchell, who served as Penn’s director of affirmative action for seven years in the 1980s and early 1990s, said that the strength of the bonds between women activists on campus in that era stands out in her memory. “The network of women working here were protective of our younger sisters. You knew there were women who had your back. It was unconditional, unwavering. We would go to war for each other.”

Later, an awards ceremony honored activists who were instrumental in the anti-rape sit-ins and the founding of the Women’s Studies department in 1973. They included Tracy, microbiology professor Helen Davies Gr’60, English professor emerita Phyllis Rackin, and former PWC directors Carrol Smith-Rosenberg and Jacqueline Wade SW’72 Gr’83.

Panel moderator Michelle Fine, a Penn faculty member in the 1980s, lauded these women for checking the University’s inclination to act as a gated community, resisting moneyed privilege on campus, and refusing to separate their intellectual work from their personal lives or their political and institutional activism.

Though the awards luncheon was largely attended by older members of the Penn community, the significance of these women gathered under one roof was not lost on younger members of the audience. Noemí Fernández, a master’s student in the Graduate School of Education, remarked that seeing them all together in person made a powerful impression. “The sisterhood, camaraderie, and support they express for one another was really powerful, and not something that you can get from just reading about this,” she said.

Other conference panels delved deeper into feminism’s past (“Histories of Nursing: Reframing the Power in Womens’ Spaces”) and present (“Negotiating Feminist Terms”), but perhaps none better represented the future than a student-oriented workshop titled “Challenges and New Directions in Recent Feminism.”

Led by Heather Love, the R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor of English, and Tamara Walker, an assistant professor of history and Africana Studies, this intimate gathering of undergraduates explored and debated where modern feminism is—or should be—going. The students questioned the relevance and potential dangers of branding feminism as cool, contrasted on-the-ground activism with Internet activism, and brainstormed about bridging Penn feminists and their greater-Philadelphia-area sisters.

This workshop also produced a consensus about the need for feminism to look less white and less cisgendered, a term indicating alignment between a person’s sex and gender identity.

Many of the conference’s younger participants evinced an increasing comfort with, and insistence on, the recognition of gender fluidity as an emerging feminist priority. But that idea illuminated a generational fault line. While some feminists still maintain a focus on striving towards true equality for women, others are looking to complicate, interrupt, or altogether dissolve what it means to be a woman or a man.

“I feel there is a disconnect around gender, where a lot of second-wave feminists are not totally on board or invested in issues of breaking gender binaries,” said Melanie Adley Gr’13, associate director of GSWS and the Alice Paul Center, who teaches a class called “Introduction to Queer Studies” at Penn. “There has been so much work to undo the biases and hierarchies based around women’s rights. So this notion of then doing away with gender binaries is hard for them conceive of.”

She wondered if this divide, between students who are trying to confuse gender and older activists who aren’t, might be bridged at a future conference.

It is a familiar challenge within feminism, where the pursuit of solidarity is often complicated by the imperative to be responsive to new ideas and struggles. As one undergraduate remarked in the “Challenges and New Directions” workshop, if the conference could have been reduced to a Twitter hashtag, an apt one would have been #ToBeContinued, because there is much happening, but still so much to be done.

Emily Kovach


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