Feminist Awakenings: A Personal “Women’s History” this Month

Today’s post comes from Prof. Catherine Seltzer, the Director of the Women’s Studies Program.  (And now I’m going to go ahead and shift to first person, since I write the headnotes…)  My post today is about the recent exhibit I helped to curate with Prof. Mary Rose of Lovejoy Library.  We wanted to try to do something a little different in our celebration of Women’s History Month this year, and so we decided to focus on a more immediate and local definition history–our own.  For this exhibit, which we have titled “Feminist Awakenings: Artifacts of Impact,” we asked people from all areas of campus to contribute an “artifact” associated with their earliest feminist impulses, or, more generally, their initial awareness of gender constructs.  In this post, I write a bit about the idea of “feminist awakenings” and about the exhibit as it took shape. 

 Please do stop by the exhibit on the first floor of Lovejoy Library.  (It runs through the end of March.)  Please feel free, too, to respond to the display in the comment section of this blog post.

photo-1One of the cases in the exhibit “Feminist Awakenings: Artifacts of Impact”

I remember reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening for the first time.  I was taking an undergraduate course on the American Novel with the wonderful scholar Elsa Nettels.  Everything Prof. Nettels chose that semester seemed to me to be revelatory in some way: it was a feast of James, Cather, and Faulkner.  But it was The Awakening that really caused, well, an awakening.  If you haven’t read the book, the novel’s protagonist, Edna Pontellier, feels an indefinable but undeniable dissatisfaction with her life as a wealthy mother in turn of the century Louisiana, an articulation of what Betty Freidan would later term “the problem that has no name.”  Edna’s struggle to connect with an authentic self is both frustrating and exhilarating; she is a deeply flawed character, but also one who is also enormously sympathetic.

At the end of the novel [Spoiler Alert!] Edna ultimately swims into the sea, and her suicide is read by many as an act conscious rebellion, and by others as one of defeat, or at least concession.  Some twenty years after first reading the novel, I love to teach it in my own American literature courses.  I find that I approach Edna in different ways as the years pass, but it is the ambiguity that surrounds her choices—even beyond those at the end of The Awakening—that I continually relish.  Relatively early in the novel, a third person voice assures us, “[T]he beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.  How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!  How many souls perish in its tumult!”  An awakening, Chopin suggests here, is not an epiphany—a clear understanding of truth—but rather a broader sense that a truth may exist and, as importantly, an acknowledged desire to pursue it.  That search, as Chopin notes in these lines and throughout The Awakening, is often marked by missteps, confusion, and even danger.

When Prof. Mary Rose and I decided to curate an exhibit of objects donated by members of the university community that represented moments of gender consciousness—of feminist awakening, or, more expansively, a recognition of gender constructs—we were drawing from our own experience in some ways: as we crafted our invitation to participate, for example, I was remembering that early encounter with Chopin’s novel and hoped other members of the campus community—students, staff, faculty, and administrators—would share similar moments.  They did even more.  We asked all of the participants to loan us an object that represented that “moment of recognition” for them, and to include a very short narrative—less than 150 words—to accompany the piece.  What these objects and stories depict is what Chopin calls “the beginning of things,” and taken together the contributions to the exhibit speak to “the necessarily vague, chaotic” and, occasionally, “exceedingly disturbing” qualities of seeing the world through a new lens.

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A letter contributed by Steve Tamari written by his mother shortly after his birth

There is a real diversity within the artifacts included in the exhibit, and the narratives, too, take a variety of tones: some are whimsical, others wry, some understated in their commentary.  And, certainly, there is a nostalgic quality in much of the exhibit.  (Nicole Klein’s contribution, for example, the 1972 album Free To Be…You And Me, makes me hum the title track every time I look at it.)  But if a central narrative emerges throughout the display cases, it is that each of us is deeply shaped by our initial encounters with restrictive understandings of gender.  For instance, Mary Sue Love writes about her brother’s anger when she was given a cowboy doll, which he felt defied gender norms.  And in an essay whose power belies its brevity, Eric Ruckh recalls being made to feel ashamed when he was “caught” having a tea party with his grandmother.  (The teacup that accompanies his narrative is a perfect testament to both fragility and endurance.)  Similarly, the exhibit is a testament to the ways in which we are deeply empowered when we first discover voices that echo our own thoughts, and we are energized by their inherent confidence and authority.  In Emily Colton’s wonderful essay, for instance, she recalls her enormous relief upon encountering the first issue of Ms. Magazine and realizing that she was not alone in her beliefs.  The dog-eared copy of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing that Valerie Vogrin contributed is a reminder of the moment when she realized she could be a writer, and that, in fact, women could say “Big” things.

These are just a a very few of the objects and narratives that make up the exhibit, and  I  encourage you to stop by the first floor of Lovejoy to see them all in the next few weeks.  It is exciting to step into the moment of awakening each contributor recalls through her or his choice of artifact and its accompanying narrative.  It’s also powerful to consider the artifacts and narratives as part of a larger collective experience, one that resonates across lines of age, gender, and sexuality.  In this small space it’s easy to imagine, to turn again to Chopin’s Awakening, “the beginning of a world.”

Contributors:

Tisha Brooks, Assistant Professor, English Language and Literature

Emily Colton, Assistant Director, Bookstore and Textbook Service

Georgiann Davis, Assistant Professor, Sociology and Criminal Justice

Elizabeth Esselman, Professor, Biological Sciences

Julie Furst-Bowe, Chancellor, SIUE

Mary Hager, Undergraduate Student, Art and Design

Dayna Henry, Assistant Professor, Kinesiology and Health Education

Nicole Klein, Associate Professor, Kinesiology and Health Education

Mary Sue Love, Associate Professor, Management and Marketing

Katherine Poole-Jones, Assistant Professor, Art and Design

Laurie Puchner, Chair, Educational Leadership

Mary Rose, Associate Professor, Library and Information Services

Eric Ruckh, Associate Professor, Historical Studies

Catherine Seltzer, Associate Professor, English Language and Literature

Lora Smallman, Assistant Professor, Library and Information Services

Virginia Stricklin, Digital Imaging Specialist, Library and Information Services

Steve Tamari, Associate Professor, Historical Studies

Ali Vlahos, Graduate Student, English Language and Literature

Valerie Vogrin, Associate Professor, English Language and Literature

Anne Werner, Assistant Professor, Construction

Curatorial Assistants: Kelsey Jones, Tyler Riddle, Melanie Schoenborn, Virginia Stricklin, Dustin Werkmann

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