Written by The Flat Hat|
September 26, 2008
These are not your grandmother’s feminists.
“If you’re a male, you’re a fag,” Kathy Middlesex ’09 said casually, describing what he thinks is the common perception of male women’s studies majors. Kathy Middlesex is not his real name; though comfortable discussing his women’s studies major, he wishes to remain anonymous to keep his lifestyle and identity from his parents, who would not approve. He chose to use his drag name, by which he is known to a number of friends on campus.
“It’s for family reasons, privacy to family,” he said. “And from family.”
Thus are the contradictions of life as a male women’s studies major at the College of William and Mary. Cheerfully chatting about common feminist myths, he tosses around sexual lingo with no apparent discomfort. Yet the judgments of parents still register.
“Well, my dad would not be a fan at all,” Middlesex said. “It just works out that when I do tell him, he doesn’t have a say because he’s not paying [for school].”
The issue of support, or lack thereof, is familiar to the rare males that major in women’s studies. They inhabit a gray area, as the role of men in the field is ill-defined and controversial. According to professor Christy Burns, chair of the women’s studies program, only three of the 33 currently declared majors in the program are men, and only two of those — Middlesex and Jamie Hood ’09 — are on campus this semester. They, like other male students, are of course welcome in the program.
“We need to make sure the focus on women is a significant focus,” Burns said. “I know that there have been discussions about it. At Boston College, I believe, there was a big convention controversy. A professor wanted no men in her women’s studies class. It changes the way the discussions work, talking about women’s bodies, women’s health, rape, sex. Maybe they won’t say things in front of men.”
Professor Brett Wilson, who teaches in the English department at the College, understands this concern from personal experience. He received a women’s studies certificate along with his graduate degree, and served as a teaching assistant in women’s studies courses at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I think that there are women that justifiably think that women’s studies is more of a safe space for women,” Wilson said. “I do think it can be the study of women by and for women, which works if you think everything else you study is about men, taught by men. If you are looking for a haven and then a man pops up in that environment, it can feel like a letdown, I guess. There still aren’t that many places for women to choose to be together without some kind of monitoring or judging by men.”
Hood and Middlesex do not worry about what their female colleagues think of them.
“I was raised by my mother and she was a feminist and raised me with very progressive beliefs,” Hood said. “There was nothing uncomfortable about it; there were other guys in the class. That was never an issue for
me; I feel more comfortable around women anyway.”
Like Hood, he was inspired to take his first women’s studies class by a woman he respected.
“One of the professors who was here last year, Margot Weiss, was kind of announced to the LBTG [lesbian/bisexual/transgender/gay] students as being queer, and she had interests that were intriguing,” Middlesex said.
“She was really fierce,” Hood added, laughing.
According to professor Suzanne Raitt, who teaches English and women’s studies classes, not every male student in an introductory women’s studies class shares Middlesex and Hood’s sincerity.
“I’ve taught the intro course I think three times, and more recently I’ve had more male students,” Raitt said.
“The first time, there were none, the second there was one, the third there were three. Those students … I wouldn’t say they were interested in feminism, I think they took it out of curiosity. They told me they wanted to meet girls. They came to the course with absolutely no idea of what they were going to encounter. They always sat together, those three. I think they were friends, from the same fraternity.”
Burns has also taught male students not purely interested in feminist theory.
“One had a girlfriend who was an outspoken activist on campus, and he thought he better take the course,” Burns said. “One enjoyed talking to his sister, and he wanted to understand her, wanted a fuller education. Some are just curious about women.”
More often than not, curiosity is not enough to tempt men into women’s studies classes. The inherent exclusivity of the title may turn them away. Several American colleges have gender studies programs, a field established in the 1990s, according to Burns. While sitting at the Daily Grind, Hood and Middlesex pondered the possible effects of renaming their field “gender studies.”
“I would probably keep the same classes and just call it gender studies,” Hood said. “It basically is a gender studies department. A couple classes are interested in masculinity studies. If we called it ‘gender,’ would more men get involved? I don’t think so. People are not comfortable with the issue. ”
Middlesex shook his head. “I think my family would be more comfortable with me as a gender studies major,” he said.
Both agreed that a fear of being stigmatized keeps male students away from the women’s studies program, regardless of its title.
“They’re afraid of being called fags,” Hood said. “No men can be in there without being gay; that’s the idea that circles. A lot of men have issues with sexuality. We’re babies,” he said, and Middlesex joined him in laughter.
At colleges, students’ individual ideas about sexuality are sometimes incorporated into the general campus attitude. Hood and Middlesex feel their friends are very accepting of their interest in women’s studies, but that the general student body is less understanding about feminism. They cited negative student reactions to annual events such as Drag Ball and Gender-Bending Day.
“This campus is often really closed-minded,” Hood said. “Last year the whole fiasco about the sex workers art show — that was humiliating for our campus. It’s really interesting how a campus that considers itself so liberal can be so closed-minded at times.”
The male majors each offered suggestions for improving the women’s studies program and for spreading the ideals of feminism around the College. Middlesex advocated gender-blind housing, and Hood would like to see more class choices and greater funding for the program. Neither has any complaints about their professors.
“I think the professors I’ve had in the women’s studies department have been the best I’ve had,” Hood said.
“They are the most fascinating, articulate, most open-minded.”
Their greatest concern about the major may be its impracticality. Most of the disparaging reactions they receive are related not to their sexuality or masculinity, but to people’s ignorance about the career applications of the program.
“I want to do queer activism or lobbying, or something like that,” Middlesex said. “There’s just so much that needs to be done. I think it’s a pretty practical use for the major.”
“I’m not doing anything practical,” Hood said dryly. “I’m staying in academia.”
When asked how she defines feminism, Raitt said, “the movement to achieve equality for men and women in all areas of experience.” Despite men’s ambiguous place in the field of women’s studies, their exclusion would be in opposition to the ideals of feminism, according to Wilson.
“Why would your biology or appearance limit what you can do in life?” Wilson said. “That’s nonsensical. If the big issues are equality and social justice, those are things that men and women need to discuss together.”