Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A few notes and thoughts on the Worlds Beyond World and Women's Stories, Women's Lives Symposia

I wanted to write at least a little about the conference I attended last weekend in Eugene, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon. The conference kicked off with a documentary film, "Agents of Change: A legacy of feminist research, teaching, and activism at the University of Oregon" by Gabriela Martinez and Sonia De La Cruz, which I'm sorry to say I missed because I was helping Kath to unload Aqueduct's books and set up our tables in the vendors' room. But I did attend about half of the sessions of the first symposium and all of the sessions of the second. I took the occasional note on some of them.

The first symposium, titled "Women's Stories, Women's Lives," was held on Thursday. The sessions were nominally organized by decades-- 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s-- but since most of the work presented was historically conceived, in fact ranged over larger spans of times. Shelley Grosjean's presentation "Lesbian Lands in Oregon," for instance, began with the 1960s and went beyond the 1980s in tracing the history of a lesbian separatist community. It is quite a while since I've thought of feminist separatism-- probably since reading Joanna Russ's What Are We Fighting For (which devotes a chapter to it). Listening to the presentation, I realized that probably a lot of younger feminists don't realize that separatist communities often came about in the way this one seems to have done. Apparently, when a couple of women in a mixed-sex, "back to the land" group, Jeanne and Ruth, challenged the group's conservative gender roles, they were booted out--and promptly organized a group of women to form a new community. This community explicitly defined itself as seeking spiritual connection via women's physical bodies in relationship to the landscape, and published Woman Spirit Magazine (1974-1984) as a means of doing "long-distance consciousness raising." (I think she may have said that Mother Kali's bookstore in Eugene was associated with the community. I remember Mother Kali's from visits I made there in the 1980s. Just thinking about it made me long for the days when feminist bookstores were to be found all across the country.) The presentation did not attempt to gloss over the community's feminist shortcomings. The community was white-- lacking in "universal sisterhood in reality," and so "attempted to appropriate other cultures to give them sense of being universal." The presenter said that the women she talked to viewed separatism as "a hospital"-- a place for being healed. But, she says, the community discovered that women severely damaged by patriarchy could never leave separatism because they were never healed. The presenter summed up the community's ideological differences from contemporary feminism as "hugely emancipatory, hugely exclusionary."

Cheris Kramarae, a longtime women's studies scholar, who is probably best known for her statement "Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings," presented next, on the subject of Global Antiviolence. "Feminism 'dies' continually," she remarked at the beginning of her talk. (So true, so true...) She finished by noting how the issues of sexual harassment, sex trafficking, and domestic violence remain important issues. "There is still no economic aid for battered women-- only individualized solutions for social problems." Most of the money appropriated for dealing with domestic violence, she says, goes to anger management programs for men rather than foucsing on the complexity of the social problem. "There is no ancient history as in 'gone'," she concluded. "The issues of the 1960s are still with us."

The third presenter in the session was Eugene's mayor, Kitty Piercy, speaking on reproductive rights activism. I couldn't help be struck by her story of being recruited at a NARAL booth in the 1980s. (I was recruited at a NARAL house party in 1981.) She referred, amusingly, to "speculum parties" where women had the opportunity to see their own cervices. As I recall, at least some of these parties had a lot to do with Our Bodies, Ourselves developments--which had a major impact on all feminists. (Indeed, it changes many practices in the medical mainstream, not only in gynecology, but in family practice as well. Medical practice in the US has never been the same, thank the goddess.)  Piercy emphasized that she was strongly motivated by personal experience to work for reproductive rights-- and as a result became a "more public person." (More personal resonance here-- the NARAL organizers I worked with in the 1980s also attempted to get me to do public speaking, but I begged off--and instead did a lot of writing and analysis for them.) In Piercy's case, one thing led to another-- which eventually included election to public office.

Margaret Hallock, a member of the faculty in Economics at the University of Oregon, spoke next on Pay Equity and union organizing in the 1980s. She helped organize the Oregon Public Employees Union. Clerical workers, whose jobs were labeled "unskilled," joined the fight for pay equity. Many of these public employees needed food stamps to supplement their pay. (Like quite a few workers today, actually.) Eventually they came up with the idea of a "rolling strike," which was do-able in the way a general strike was not. The rolling strike was so successful that the legislature has since outlawed it. Every day the clerical workers in a different department walked off the job. (Imagine the surprise of all the people relying on the labor of clerical workers discovering how dependent they were on it...) Briefly, the gender gap in pay was closed. (Sad closing note: the gender gap in pay is back.)

Shannon Elizabeth Bell spoke about the origin of the environmental justice movement in the poorest county of North Carolina. This is a movement aimed at protecting health and economic well-being of communities (rather than focusing on protecting the Earth). It is grassroots and on-going, particularly in Appalachia vis-a-vis the coal industry. The presenter played a moving audio clip of an Appalachian woman talking about why she fights for environmental justice and the backlash she faces within her own community.

Next we broke for lunch, after which we had the pleasure of listening to Molly Gloss reading from her Tiptree-Award novel Wildlife. I'm afraid I can't find my notes for the afternoon sessions. I missed most of the first session (presumably because I was talking to someone at the time, though my memory is weirdly hazy). The second afternoon session, on the 21st century, entailed Gabriela Martinez on the University of Oregon's Diversity Project, Nichole Maher on Native American Families ( a wonderful success story of community organizing and coalition work), Susan Sygall on disability rights in the global context, and Charli Carpenter on "interest gaps between intentions and outcomes" in national security policies. Carpenter is particularly interested in the gendered norms for defining civilian immunity and the "Making Amends" campaign, based on the idea that governments need to not only not commit war crimes, but also need to assist civilians harmed by violent conflict. (I have to say-- and several members of the audience agreed with me, this latter would have been more effective without an overwrought sound track.)

Dinner break was a bit of a rush, since seating for the Ursula Le Guin reading began at 6 p.m. The reading was, as you might expect, wonderful. Ursula read from an unpublished story that only three people (I think) had previously read. I won't say any more about it, though, since Ursula swore us all to silence. (Given the hundreds of people listening, I'll be interested to see if details of the story leak out.) After the reading, Ursula did some Q&A, first with a professor and graduate student and then with the audience. A signing, which I and several other writers participated in, followed.(I was seated between Suzy McKee Charnas and Kate Wilhelm.) And then it was back to the hotel and the hotel's bar, where a good time was had by many (including me), and it felt a lot like WisCon, if you know what I mean.

Saturday's symposium was "Worlds Beyond World," and was all about feminist sf. The first panel, moderated by Roxane Samer, featured three undergraduates and one graduate student talking about class projects using the University of Oregon archives (which includes the papers of Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ). Laura Strait talked about Ursula Le Guin's correspondence with Eleanor Cameron and Cameron's run-in with Roald Dahl and her critique of the racism in his work. Strait made the point that she believes an understanding of an author's intentionality can inform literary criticism of the author's work. Grace Shunn, who admitted knowing very little about science fiction, talked about reading UKL's correspondence with Alice Sheldon. Mahkah Wu, who spoke so quickly the person writing captions gave up even trying to follow his presentation, talked about men's advantages in debates-- because men are allowed to be verbally aggressive without penalty and can talk as fast as they want and still be intelligible (especially if their voices are deep). Debate, he said, creates a hostile atmosphere toward women. He mentioned debating the proposition that "Women should not be allowed access to political institutions" (on the con side)-- though I have no memory of how this related to anything else he was saying-- about which, later, someone (I think it may have been Vonda McIntyre) wondered why the proposition hadn't been "Men should not be allowed access to political institutions" instead. He finally, after much preamble, noted that he had chosen to focus on an argument Ursula had with Darko Suvin. Amy Jones concluded the session by talking about reading documents in the archives to trace changes in language use (which is something that interests me mightily).

I was a panelist for the next two sessions, one before and one after lunch, and so I'm afraid I can't really say much about them. (I was told that a written transcript of the sessions is being prepared. When/if I hear of one, I'll let you know.) I was a bit uncertain going into these because I wasn't sure of what our audience would be. Nevertheless, the level of the discussion was in no way a sort of "feminist science fiction 101." My impression after the event is that the audience's level of comprehension was varied. The first panel focused on "Feminist Science Fiction as Political Theory." Larissa Lai moderated this beautifully, and Suzy McKee Charnas, Vonda N. McIntyre, Kate Wilhelm, and I were the panelists. I enjoyed it immensely, as I did the second panel, "Building Feminist Worlds," moderated by Margaret McBride, with panelists Molly Gloss, Andrea Hairston, Larissa Lai, and me. I think we talked more specifically about particular works on the second panel. (Though I may be wrong!) My hope is that we conveyed a sense of just how lively, diverse, and burgeoning feminist science fiction is.

The last session, moderated by Grace Dillon, included Kathryn Allan, Joan Haran, Andrea Hairston, and Alexis Lothian. Grace Dillon questioned the prevalence of frontier and pioneer metaphors in science fiction research and cited Katie King's Networking Re-enactments. "True tradition," she asserted, "is dynamic" rather than static. Joan talked about her article with Katie King in the new issue of Ada. (Which I liked to in an earlier entry on this blog.) She argued that new historiographies enable us to think about alternative futures (an idea I've gotten behind myself, particularly in my "Toward a Genealogy of Feminist Science Fiction"). She emphasized how wrong it is to assume that the present is single and unified. Alexis talked about feminist science fiction's exploration of ways of knowing, which allows us other ways of looking at the world. Andrea declared that when she sits down to write a paper, it is as "a performance monologue by Andrea the Professor." "I follow the desire for knowledge and then I write about it," she said. Kathryn Allan studies "feminist post-cyberpunk" as an independent scholar. She works on disability in science fiction and has written "Cripping the Future" using an approach to disability studies that takes the modeling of disability away from the medical estabilishment and gives it to the disabled.

In retrospect, I'm struck by how the discussions that unfolded over the last three sessions always came back to the importance of community for feminist science fiction. On one of the panels (probably "Feminist Science Fiction as Political Theory") I noted that for me, three metaphors characterize feminist science fiction. The first is the one Carol Stabile (one of the key organizers of the conference) articulated at the beginning of the Worlds Beyond World symposium: Feminist science fiction provides space for creating alternatives to "what is" (which is especially important now that most people in the US have been taught to believe that how things are is the only way they can be). Karen Joy Fowler gave me the second metaphor when she wrote to me (back in 2002, I think) that "feminist science fiction is the sea I swim in." The third metaphor is my own: feminist science fiction is a grand conversation. Each of these metaphor help us to see different aspects of feminist science fiction, all of them absolutely critical. The first explains what feminist sf does and why it matters. The second tells us about how the individual reader or writer engages in feminist science fiction within a crucial, indispensible context. (A work of feminist sf is only possible and intelligible because of the existence of feminist science fiction as a whole.) And the third metaphor makes explicit the connections the second one implies and explains how it is intelligible at all.

It was a wonderful weekend, y'all. I wish more of you could have been there.

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