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Ms. Alecia Lewis
Ms. Jessica Scott
Ms. Bridget Clark
Annette Olsen-Fazi, Ph.D.
The call for contributions to a special edition of Women Writers entitled "Feminist Mentoring and the Text" sent my students and me on a mission. The mission was to explore, and perhaps to expose, the prevailing conditions shared by the women who teach and study at our present institution.
A small branch of a major southern university, this particular campus recently underwent the transition from a community college to a four-year liberal arts institution. Located in the rabidly conservative and deeply religious center of the state, the school is as infamous for its long, ingrained history of racism and gender discrimination as it is for the associated concentration of power in the hands of a few tenured senior faculty, all white and all male.
This is a campus where misogyny and xenophobia are principles to uphold and sometimes odd sources of pride. In other words, we have a plantation mentality dedicated to keeping the downtrodden firmly subservient and properly respectful, maintaining the traditional majority in unquestioned control. A comment overheard recently concerned a departmental resolve to pursue and cultivate "a faculty community of like-minded individuals." The resolve was voiced by a professor of philosophy, a discipline at other institutions associated with reflection, moderation, and tolerance. This same professor allows himself to characterize female colleagues as "not unintelligent," a reference that could be considered vaguely complimentary only at a place such as this.
In view of the prevailing principles of the school, it's not surprising that not a single woman has been elected tenure or a promotion in the Liberal Arts department since the university was founded some forty years ago. Female professors who voice an opinion are impertinent and disruptive. Should they voice their opinions too often or too forcefully, they're given the boot by their tenured male colleagues or voluntarily pack their own bags. The frustrations involved in building a career where male professors are entitled doctor, while their female counterparts are addressed as Miss Annette or Mrs. Debra, are simply overwhelming.
Here female faculty must rely on the emotional support and intellectual recognition they can provide one another. An additional and vital source of validation comes from students. When women are kept off important committees, professionally and personally denigrated, and systematically harassed (it's not unknown for male professors to use epithets such as "bitch" to refer to a female colleague), recognition typically comes from others equally disenfranchised, i.e., colleagues and students of the same gender.
One might expect these circumstances
to create a fiercely combative situation where females vie with
one another for crumbs of power and inches of turf. Surprisingly,
the atmosphere at this university has failed to breed a climate
of female competition, backstabbing, and power wrestling. Instead,
the women in our department have established a minority support
system, recognizing and rewarding one another's achievements,
thus forming a sub-faculty within the larger, male-dominated
Male professors unable to recognize female colleagues as social, professional, and intellectual equals are not likely to provide a nurturing environment for the young women under their tutelage. Yet we not only have a majority female student population, we also have females as ambitious as they are gifted, individuals entitled to the encouragement and rewards assumed to be the natural right of all students who perform well. In this context, the testimony of Bridget Clark bears witness to the ways a feminist approach to text can galvanize a female student's resistance to a social and educational status quo she might otherwise have unquestioningly accepted.
Furthermore, if an institution, supposed to be a bastion of equity and education for all, is able to legitimize and perpetuate exclusionary practices, what might one suppose about the surrounding community? It could be expected that the community would be the organic nexus of the fear and hostility towards females and minorities so rampant on our campus. This is precisely what is suggested by the experiences of Alecia Lewis, another student contributing to this article.
One of the objectives my female colleagues and I have established is to identify, assist, and promote gifted students, both male and female. We've begun to constitute a core of majors and minors in our discipline, people who read Jamaica Kincaid and Herman Melville with equal respect and emotion.
Generally, female students express approval over the recent hire of two female PhDs, myself and Dr. Ginger Jones, interviewed here by Jessica Scott, explaining that senior male professors often make light of their efforts or even ignore them outright. (I wish to make it clear that the prevailing problem resides principally with older male faculty. Recently hired male professors, younger and/or more progressive, understand and encourage the nurturing of female, as well as male, talent among the student body.)
With the conviction that my students and I needed to submit an article for this special edition of Women Writers, I asked three of our highly gifted and enthusiastic female students, Jessica Scott, Alecia Lewis, and Bridget Clark, if they'd be interested in collaborating on a sort of collage, a narrative quilt about the female experience in our community and on our campus. I requested they explore ways in which they as females might have been mentored by other females, particularly-although not exclusively- through the medium of text.
The students were eager to share their experiences. Although not as scholarly in their approach as students from larger universities in other parts of the country, the stories these young women tell are moving, sincere, and pertinent. They also show evidence of serious trauma in the women's daily lives, trauma that has shaped the roles they play and the views they have of themselves and others. Most importantly, the testimonials illustrate the valorizing and healing powers of strong female relationships and the powerful, enduring, and mutually beneficial bonds that result from female-to-female mentoring.
My female colleagues and I also garner life-giving oxygen and professional inspiration from students such as Alecia Lewis, Bridget Clark, and Jessica Scott. Seeing female students unfold and blossom as their efforts and abilities are praised also strengthens us. That is what teachers do after all; we nourish young minds, hearts, and souls, ideally enabling them to reach their optimal potential. So together we have begun, within this stultifying southern patriarchy, to build a circle of womanly affection, power and recognition that grows stronger and more effective as more female students and faculty join our ranks and make their voices heard.
Here, hopefully for the edification and the illumination of all, are the contributions of three most unusual and promising students, women who are dealing with their environment in order to soar.
Interview with Dr. Ginger Jones
I am a 26-year-old female student at a small southern university, which has only recently become a four-year institution. In my chosen major of English, there are an extremely limited number of female professors (only two, in fact). Yet without these two professors as mentors and female role models, I do not think my success and progress in school would be what it is today. In order to explore this perception further, I conducted an interview with my advisor, teacher, mentor, and friend, Dr. Ginger Jones.
The first question I asked Dr. Jones was: "Is there a particular female influence in your past (teacher or otherwise) that helped you to choose your career path as a professor?" She answered as follows: "I attended an all-girls high school. Surprisingly, the nuns, who at first appeared quite meek and submissive, took great care in making sure we recognized the women's movement that was sweeping the nation at this time. In particular, there was Sister Rita, who made me read The Feminine Mystique and report back to her afterwards. It had no immediate impact on me, as I married and had children straight out of high school. It was not until years later, after I began to study for my undergraduate degree, that I understood Sister Rita's impact. As an undergraduate, I had only one female teacher and although I admired her immensely, she was not always approachable. Yet still, I envied her intellect and ability and wanted to be just like her."
My next question was: "How do your female colleagues support or mentor you on a regular basis?" Dr. Jones answered: "Well of course I have only one fellow female PhD, and that is Dr. Annette Olsen-Fazi. We were hired on around the same time to help this university make the transition from a 2-year to a 4-year school. Our experiences bound us to each other, because we were a minority in this university. I find protection from other female PhDs, and nurturing of creativity and initiatives. Women who have not had to, or have chosen not to, earn a PhD are supportive, but do not seem to understand the aggressiveness a graduate degree requires."
Switching gears a little, I asked: "How does being a female influence your selection of texts for the classroom?" To this question, Dr. Jones answered: "It does not influence my text selection. I do not teach from a female perspective. Feminine and masculine voices can come from different genders. I can teach about 'voice', but does a female voice always come from a female? I do not think so, not always. An example of this is Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence. This novel, though written by a male, communicates from the female perspective on the emotion of love. I also had a male teacher who was instrumental in introducing me to feminist texts. On the other hand, in grad school, I also met many strong lesbian friends who were concerned with making sure that all women were conscious of the female struggle."
In keeping with this line of questioning, my next question was: "What are some texts you have chosen based on the importance of their female or feminist influence, and why are they important to you?" To this question Dr. Jones responded: "Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, because it introduces young women to the possibilities of their lives. Also, 'I Stand Here Ironing' by Tillie Olsen, because it provides a way for women to discuss nurturing and guilt. Another would be Clifton's poem 'Homage to My Hips' because it allows women to discuss their own bodies. This kind of literature is special because it provides the same opportunity for discussion to men as well, who have been taught to see the female body-one with large hips-differently. I was personally influenced by Alice Walker's The Color Purple and by Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God so deeply that I spent a great deal of time on critical study of each book before I felt I could teach either of them well. I know my students have also come away from those texts with new understandings of themselves and their own potential."
My next question concerned a class that I personally attended with Dr. Jones about three years ago. I asked: "In your short fiction class, we studied Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper'. What, in your opinion, does this story help young women realize about themselves?" Dr. Jones answered: "I hope that it helps women to realize how they can give up their own power and allow themselves to be oppressed-not just by their husbands, but by society. All that the main character has to do is decide to take control of her own life, yet she feels powerless to do so."
My final question to Dr. Jones was as follows: "Aside from feminist mentoring, do you feel that more traditional female bonds, like motherhood, sisterhood, and friendship impact or help to influence your female students and colleagues?" Before I give Dr. Jones' answer, it may be helpful for me to make known that I am currently about seven months pregnant. Dr. Jones responded: "Yes. These personal experiences that link us remind us that we are female, and that it is okay to embrace it. All women have potential peculiar to their gender; pregnancy is one. This peculiarity can be used in a predominately female class as an icebreaker, or a tool to help us feel more connected. Like the fact that I have joked with you (Jessica) on several occasions in our Major Black Writers class, which is predominately female, about your very pregnant belly. Yet, I do think that sometimes in our struggle to be politically correct, we do not always cherish the idea of being a man or a woman. I like gender differences, and strongly believe that one is not superior to another."
I am personally very aware of the impact that Dr. Jones has made on my academic career. Through the process of this interview, I have gained much more insight into how, like me, she was influenced to choose her own path. I knew that my ultimate goal was to obtain a PhD and become a professor when I returned to school at the age of 24; but it was by forming bonds with these two female PhDs, as professors and mentors, that I truly began to realize that my goal was not only something that I could achieve, but also something that would be very worthwhile and fulfilling in my life. I have had many good male professors in my college career, but these two women, Dr. Jones and Dr. Olsen-Fazi, have shown me how I can achieve my goals not just academically, but personally as well. They have mentored me through many personal challenges that I have faced while under their tutelage, such as multiple miscarriages, adoption exploration, and (surprise!) successful pregnancy. The advice I have received from these two women on balancing life with school has been just as crucial to my academic success as the unique perspective that they have provided on feminist texts.
Being What I Am
I am not only a woman, but I am a feminist. I was always a feminist, but did not always realize it. I first began to realize it when I worked at a popular electronics store, and it was later confirmed by my ability to relate to the woman in Charlotte Perkins Gillman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," and by my friend and mentor, Dr. Annette Olsen-Fazi. My retail experience, Gilman's story, and Dr. Olsen-Fazi remind me that I am a feminist, and all continue to affect me.
I worked at the store in question from November 16, 1991 to March 16, 2003. Because of the product this store sells, most of the customers and employees are men. During my time there, I did work with women, but the majority of my coworkers were males. I had to work twice as hard as the men did, and consistently had to prove that I knew as much as they. Some of the male customers did not want me to help them because of my gender. As a consequence, when a male came in and wanted to speak to a man, I would usually go and get one of the guys. The male coworker would not know how to solve the problem, and would ask me for help in front of the customer. I would be very nice, but there were times I could be condescending. Sometimes I made the male customers feel horrible; in some cases I would receive an apology.
It was one thing when a man treated me as if I did not know what I was talking about. It was different and more disturbing when a woman did it. One time a woman came in and needed the battery in her cordless phone changed. She told me she did not want me to do it; she wanted a man to do it. All the men were in the back room, watching porn, because the male manager at the time kept porno movies and magazines in the back. However, to his credit, he never treated me with any disrespect or sexually harassed me in any way.
I went into the back to get one of the male employees. They all said that I could help the customer myself. I told them that I knew how to change the battery in the phone, but the customer wanted a man to do it. One of my male coworkers got up and waited on the woman. After he had changed the battery, his words were "Alecia could have done this for you." She gave me a dirty look, but I just smiled at her. In my entire time with this company, only one woman told me she was glad I had waited on her because I did not talk down to her.
I have been called a bitch by both coworkers and customers, and was told on more than one occasion that I needed to act like a proper lady and be submissive. My mother, however, taught me that I should be no person's doormat. I would call customers on their behavior if I thought it was out of line. Once a man asked me, "Are you trying to tell me there is a double standard?" My exact words were, "Sir, I believe I just did."
Eventually I got tired of constantly having to prove myself. For whatever reason customers would be handed off to me, I would hand them right back to the male coworker and tell him that this customer would be more comfortable dealing with a man. Most of the time, the customer would realize what he or she had done and would be incredibly embarrassed. Then he or she would apologize and beg me to wait on him or her. My experience at this retail store got me to start thinking that I am a feminist. I then began to relate to Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper."
It is a very tough story to read. I do not mean tough because of the writing style; the story is hard to read because of the subject matter. The nameless woman is sick and her husband does not believe her. His solution is to put her in a room with hideously yellow wallpaper. She describes the color as being "repellant, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow turning sunlight" (Gilman 320). She does not like the room and wants the room "downstairs that opened on the piazza and had roses all over the window" (Gilman 320). She adds, "John would not hear of it" (Gilman 320). Not only does her husband not respect her wishes; he does not even listen to her. There are men who do not listen to what women have to say simply because women are not men.
At night the unnamed narrator of the story sees the creeping shadow of a woman trapped underneath the wallpaper. The female shadow signals the fact that the narrator is not only a prisoner in a room she detests, but is also a captive in her marriage. The reason the narrator does not have a name is because she is Every Woman. At one time or another, I am positive, most women, if not every woman, has experienced not being heard because of her gender. I know and understand what the woman in this story goes through. I know this woman because she is me and I am she.
I read "The Yellow Wallpaper" for two different English classes at my university, where I am an English major. I read it for a male professor, when I took Introduction to Fiction, and I read it for Dr. Annette Olsen-Fazi for Literary Theory and Criticism. I never had a mentor until I met Dr. Olsen-Fazi in the 2004 fall semester; not only is she my teacher, she is also my friend. I am deeply honored that she asked me to collaborate on this exploration of feminism and text. She inspires me in a way that no other teacher has. She has taught me that there are different ways of looking not only at text, but at other things as well. She has empowered me with selections of texts in the classes that I am currently taking with her, as well as the ones she picked in literary criticism. She made me realize that feminism is not a dirty word, and that I am a feminine feminist.
It is empowering being a feminist, and I think every woman should quite naturally be one. A woman can do and know just as much as any man, and sometimes she knows more. We should not be talked down to, or treated like we do not know what we are talking about. My experience at the electronics retail outfit taught me that I am a feminist, Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" reminds me that I am a feminist, and Dr. Olsen-Fazi, my friend and mentor, assures me that being a feminist is not a bad thing.
My Feminist Mentor
As a 38-year-old mother of three, I decided to return to college two years ago after a 20-year hiatus. It was at this time that Dr. Annette Olsen-Fazi became my English professor and feminist mentor. Dr. Olsen-Fazi not only opened the world of literature to me in a truly amazing way, but also she presented feminism as I had never seen it. She so inspired me that I eventually took three English classes taught by her-and my major is not English. After completing a degree in my chosen field, I plan to return to complete a degree in English as well. Because someone made a difference for me, I too, hope to make a difference.
Though I had always felt that women are equal with men, I had never been acquainted with another woman who felt as I did and who spoke openly of it. It is not an uncommon occurrence in some subcultures for women to avoid an association with the word "feminist." In the deep south, a woman is often discouraged by other women from admitting that she is a feminist, because this would mean that the woman is not fulfilling her "duty" of being "submissive." It is tragic when victims of sexism embrace the flawed ideology to which they are subjected. Many men in the south voice objections to feminism, condemning it as an attempt to "usurp male authority." Keep in mind that this "male authority" concerns an assumed male superiority over women in general. The insinuation is that women should "know their place," and that place is below a man, many times to the point of not making decisions, not voicing objections to male decisions, and accepting lesser positions and wages than a man receives.
I have actually had women tell me that it was perfectly understandable for a man to make more money than a woman at the same job, since a man is "head of the house" and he probably has a family for which he has to provide. In actuality, the woman may very well have a family for which to provide as well. She may be someone who, just as her male counterpart, worked very hard to attain a position or degree, so why should she cower to another just because of a difference in anatomy? Likewise, I have heard men openly discuss the way women "displace" men in the workplace and their amazement that women could actually expect equal wages!
Having resided in such a narrow-minded subculture, it was like a breath of fresh air to be able to able to attend Dr. Olsen-Fazi's classes. She embraces her feminism fully and is not ashamed to be a woman who knows that she is not a lesser being than a man. Her frankness in this area empowered many of us to step out and admit what we thought all along. It was incredibly refreshing to hear such strength in young women, for they were finally able to state their opinions about literature and even life without fear of condemnation. Our ideas finally mattered! She opened worlds to us while helping us grow as students studying literature.
I remember one occasion when Freud's views were presented as we studied psychoanalytic criticism. One astute young lady, Alecia Lewis, asked, "What is it called when men are envious of women-'ovarian envy'?" Everyone became quiet for a moment, then laughter erupted among female and male students alike. What a tension breaker! Ah, the freedom!
Before Dr. Olsen-Fazi introduced us to feminist critique, I never knew it existed. I was in awe to learn of the contributions of women such as Simone de Beauvoir, Katherine Mansfield, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Wolfe, Kate Millet, Germaine Greer, Elaine Showalter, and many others.
One short story we read and discussed was "The Yellow Wallpaper," by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. What an astounding and revealing portrayal of the damage that oppression does to a person's psyche. Though the depth of the oppression may not be the same as experienced by the women of that time, women of our time still do experience oppression with contradictions.
The woman in "The Yellow Wallpaper" was diagnosed with "temporary nervous depression-a slight hysterical tendency." Her husband and her brother tell her what to take and undertake, while forbidding her to work until she is well again (Gilman 27). Although she disagrees with their "ideas," she has no control over her own life; she is left with only the choice of compliance to free her from her prison of the room with the yellow wallpaper. Her husband tells her that with her "imaginative power and habit of story making, a nervous habit like [hers] is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that [she] ought to use [her] good will and good sense to check the tendency" (Gilman, 28). However, she cannot fully comply with their demands because she must write-it is part of her. Furthermore, her husband forbids her to tend her newborn, because "it makes [her] so nervous" (Gilman 28). Because the drives of individualism, independence, and motherhood are strong within her, she is driven to a place where the men in her life can no longer control her. It is tragic that insanity is the only place that the woman in the story could go.
Women of our time may feel pressured to work, or to not work, to take care of all of the responsibilities of the home and family, but not to "worry our pretty little heads" about important decisions-financial and otherwise. In a world such as this, people like Dr. Olsen-Fazi are vital. Feminist mentoring is a must, for it is a strength which helps women cope. Women should mentor women in light of the knowledge that they are equal with men, they do matter, they have opinions and ideas, and they have the right to voice them. Dr. Olsen-Fazi has made all the difference to me. Vive la différence!
The whole truth is that we all, students and professors, mentor one another. Women professors recognize, encourage, and delight at the talented work of female mentees. In return, the achievements, the thoughts, the ideas, and the feedback of the young women we've nurtured-occasionally even awakened to their potential!-reward us, making us stronger women and happier, more confident educators. Most importantly, those elements empower us in our mission to bring equity to university campuses and quality education to everyone we instruct, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
I shall conclude by saying that the three young women who have contributed to this project believe they've been mentored and empowered by their female professors. That, however, is only a very small piece of the picture. The whole truth is that these women and others like them have preserved the sanity of professionals like Dr. Jones, like me, and like so many other female educators laboring under a patriarchal plantation system.
These students have nourished us, maintaining our belief in our ability to make significant contributions to the lives of other human beings. Young female intellectuals like Alecia, Bridget, and Jessica demonstrate that the personal and professional demands of females, even if they live and study in an oppressive southern enclave of misogyny and discrimination, cannot be silenced.
Most of all, the stories told by Bridget, by Alecia, and by Jessica ring out to proclaim that the female voice will not be silenced, not under even the most oppressive of conditions.
Gillman, Charlotte Perkins. "The Yellow Wallpaper." The Story and Its Writer. Compact Fifth Edition. Ed. Ann Charters. Boston: Bedford/St.Martin's, 1999. 319-332.