To understand the relevance of feminist theory and criticism in my life required me to look back on how and when I first encountered feminism. As I thought about how to respond to this generous call issued by the editors, I found myself thinking about younger versions of myself. There I was, lost, naive, and always with a book. Feminism, for me, has emerged from many places, but first and most arrestingly, it came in textual form. Here are some of my key memories of encountering feminisms in text.
Sometime around the middle of the 1990s I find a copy of Sassy magazine in the public library in Henderson, North Carolina. I had been dropped off at the library while the rest of the family went to the YMCA—I am off the hook this once because I had just gotten my period for the first time and no one could face teaching me how to manage a tampon, nor could I face learning how. And so, here I am, alone, mildly ashamed of my body, acutely aware of my limited skills with both my body and the library I will be in for the next two hours. The library is in a low, one-storey brick building with small tables and a few computers at one end, narrow metal rows of books, and a limp magazine rack at the other. After a few half-hearted mopes through the stacks, I drift over to the rack and spot it almost immediately. The cover has two girls wearing weird bright outfits and the strangest shoes I’ve ever seen. Inside there is an article on Tracy Chapman. A small piece about Bikini Kill. A how-to for girls who want to learn to skateboard. A DIY guide for making a pair of jeans into a skirt. In short, a lifeboat for an awkward kid (me) who was feeling out of place in every way possible. I devour every page twice and have to stop myself from slipping the magazine into my bag to take home and keep in my room.
1998. I am sitting in a literature class in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is hot in the classroom, but you can’t open the windows because the building was constructed in the 1960s to be riot-proof. We are reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. We are reading Gayl Jones’ Corregidora. We are reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. This class is one of two required courses on African American literature I need to graduate with a degree in literature. The professor is Dr. Mae Henderson. She is the smartest person I have ever encountered. She moves between terms that are new to me (hello, bildungsroman) and contexts that are unfamiliar and make the books we’re reading rich with history and present-tense vitality. I am keenly aware I am out of my depth. I sit directly in the middle of the class and take furious notes. I am overwhelmed by the sentences in these books. How can you do that to a sentence, I wonder, over and again. I am dislocated by the ululations that refuse conclusion in Jones’ novel. I am catapulted into other realms by Morrison’s grammatical innovation. I am taught through the whole term in a mode I would now call intersectional feminism but at the time was simply a constant and world-altering reminder to look at contexts from many angles in order to read the book and think about what it took each writer to write it.
2001. I am probably going to get a C in this political science class on feminist politics. I keep looking to give the right answer, but the professor keeps writing “ask better questions” on my assignments. This course is an elective. I don’t need it for my literature degree, but I am fascinated. Partly by all the people in the class—they seem so sure, so articulate, so ready to debate. The professor wears skirt suits and stockings and I can see her leg hair through the stockings. I find this both shocking and thrilling, and I think, possibly for the first time, about not shaving my legs. Partly, I am fascinated by the readings. Some are locked boxes I turn over and over. Irigaray. Frye. Wittig. Wittig I think I almost understand when she writes about being outside of straight imagination. Some are poetry. Gloría Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera is almost sacred. I circle it the way one might circle a venerated object or a rare flower—reverential, awestruck, a bit covetous. Some texts are so vital I carry them around in my bag just to have them near. Patricia Hill Collins’ Black Feminist Thought teaches me about intersectionality and in so doing forever shifts my relationship with the world.
2005. The tension in the classroom is so electric I can almost taste the metallic energy. I’m in graduate school in a year-long feminist theory course and things have been taking a turn for a while. The professor, white, queer, cis, has made a misstep and some of my classmates are shaken to their core. She has said, this professor, that she is glad we are through the difficulty of French feminist theory and into the relative ease of bell hooks. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but some of the class is filled with anger and hurt. Later, or rather, through the process of finishing the class with my classmates, I will know that my lack of clarity about the “why” are bound up in white privilege. I will carry the recognition of my own unearned privileges for the rest of my life. I will also carry the recognition of my belated recognition. I carry. Present tense. Future tense.
2009–2022. Again, the tension in the classroom is electric, only this time I am the professor. The classroom is multiple classrooms. The tensions are many. The time a student yelled at me in front of the class for giving queer theorists more space on a syllabus than Heidegger. The time I cry in front of the class because I cannot picture a world in which a president of a country says, unabashed, that he grabs women by the pussy, and yet here we are, living in it. The days we mark Theresa Spence’s hunger strike together. The days we encounter rape culture yet again in the multiple and shape-shifting forms of what we call, following Tarana Burke, Me Too. Me too, we say in the classroom. Me too. Then there are the days when we pivot. We become small squares in one another’s living spaces, and private/public selves collapse. I talk about holding space in new ways. Class conversation takes a different shape, moving over mute buttons and screens blacked out for all sorts of reasons I will never know, and yet bear witness to differently, for a time. In these squares wars are waged on our bodies, communities, children. On our climates. And yet each day we begin, or I try to invite us to begin, by naming something tangible and lofted and good. A poem. A colour. A future. Another chance in the classroom, together.
What is the relevance of feminist theory in my life? I realize, in the course of this invitation, that it is the foundation of my capacity to stand up in front of a classroom of students and ask us to think together. It is the spine that holds up conversation. The compass that guides us to more intersections, more generosity, more precision in our relatings. Though I have experienced and try to live feminism in all facets of my life, I realize it is the classrooms and texts—actual words on a page written by feminists of all sorts of lived experiences—that have fundamentally shaped my sense of justice and of the possibility of community. What is the relevance? The same as oxygen. Vital. Vivifying. Precious. Shared.1
1. I could have written this about feminist friendships. Another time. It needs to be said here that two of my dear friends read this and offered vital commentary. Thanks to Hannah McGregor and Heather Jessup. I also thank Lily Cho and Linda Morra, my feminist colleagues first, and, now, beloved friends. Gratitude to Heather Milne and Aubrey Hanson, feminist beacons and—what a gift—friends.
Erin Wunker is an Associate Professor of Canadian literature at Dalhousie University in Mi’kma’ki.
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