Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Working for Judith Shakespeare: A Study in Feminism

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Working for Judith Shakespeare: A Study in Feminism

Article excerpt

BETWEEN CLASSES, we had been informally talking about books by women writers. Women writers were not necessarily on our agenda for the semester: Aimee was a second-year student in business, making decisions about how to coordinate her school life and the challenges of her personal life; and Jane was an assistant professor on a one-year, replacement contract, teaching composition and speech courses, applying to jobs in other parts of the country. But our conversations were insistent and lively, leading us back to women writers and questions about how women make their lives. The questions seemed pressing that semester--at the start of a new century, in the remote landscape of northern North Dakota, close to the Canadian border, where there are so few women and is so little variety in lifestyle, where the last family farms are still holding on.

We decided to formalize our conversations by arranging a one-credit independent study in women's literature. One question kept reemerging, a question that is a common and resounding aspect of feminism: how do personal perspectives and experiences fit in with literary and theoretical meanings? Our independent study was formalized by its context, including evaluation and grading. On the other hand, our tone was informal and open-ended, our conversations often drifting into our own lives as married women, the North Dakota landscape, the writing life. Our tone was, at times, intimate. We don't think of such intimacy as canceling out the objective goals of our study but as enhancing them.

At the end of the semester, we gave each other a writing assignment based on this question: how is feminism defined through women writers? As you will see, the answers were pressured and enlivened not only by the literature but by the comparative study of women's lives.

Jane: Citing the Personal

Women bond through personal disclosure, as my friend Jan laPlante likes to say. Also, women define themselves through telling their own lives, and feminism, as a field of study, acknowledges that personal stories are politicized. "The personal is political" has become a popular feminist rallying cry. Still, I have striven for objectivity in my teaching life, have learned early on that my teaching style needs to make room for more perspectives. So in this study of feminism, how much do I tell Aimee about me?

As an undergraduate, I was an excellent exam-taker, project-doer, and assignment writer, but even as I proceeded with high marks, I knew the real learning wasn't happening. I thought the learning that would change my life would happen in the wilds of the natural world, by kayak or mountaineering, and I had moved from my home in Iowa to Idaho to pursue those changes. I studied the wilds and more importantly, I studied my peers--in the wilds. One day, in the Snake River Canyon, on a whitewater rafting trip, I studied a beautiful girl named Randi who led the expedition. Randi was solid, athletic, and had long, blond, sunny Idaho hair. She had big tufts of darker hair under her arms. Her legs were rough with hair and with scars of the outdoor life. She handled the raft with power and expertise. Going through the whitewater rapids, she whooped her exaltation.

I wanted to be like Randi. As I grew into womanhood, I watched around me for the women I could emulate, gleaning from my surroundings the look of womanhood that appeared strong, new, and unique. I wanted, willfully and naively, to grow into a kind of strength that I understood only from the outside, and I thought I would find it in the outdoorswomen that I so admired.

This is a foray into feminism, one woman comparing herself to another, looking for models. How else are we to measure ourselves? Where do the models come from? Though I majored in English, it never occurred to me that women in books, distant, historical women, women I could not actually see in the flesh and go rafting with, might offer some comparative view of my own womanhood. …

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