Women Studies (Oregon)
This chapter looks at the politics of being a man in a women studies program at Oregon State University. Race, gender, and class are more complex than most theories can comprehend. People can be oppressed in some ways; while experiencing certain privileges at the same time. Radical feminists tend to blame patriarchy, and avoid all discussion about their own race or class priviledges.
Let me make this clear from the start. I do not speak on behalf of women. This would not be possible since I have absolutely zero experience at being a woman. My background on the topic will always be second hand, and to be honest, this gender still confuses me at times. Women are a beautiful mystery that I am still trying to understand. The learning process often fills me with mixed feelings. What I can discuss is what it was like to be a man in a Women Studies program (a feMENist).
After all, I am one of the few men, if not the only man, to ever graduate with a master’s degree in this major field. It took me three years to graduate. In this time I watched other men experiment with a Women Studies class or two. Many transferred to a science elective after only one week, others became belligerent and argued in class, and a few more even left the room inspired. A Women Studies class is like shedding skin. It can be painful, but afterward you become something different. This transformation can be both good and bad.
When I applied to the Women Studies program at Oregon State University I was homeless. The department offered many courses on race and gender, but strikingly avoided class oppression. I intended to bridge dialogue between groups. I am a white male, but I do understand the economics of oppression. I experienced poverty all my adult life. Therefore, I reasoned that a classroom was a good place to find common ground.
I was especially attracted to writers that form a synthesis between categories: Starhawk, Cornel West, Martin Manning, bell hooks, and Camille Paglia. I studied these writers outside of required class material because they move beyond theories, into actual dialogue about power and oppression. Each writer is willing to explore the complicated gray area in which an individual can be both privileged and oppressed. They are not bound to preset dichotomous theories that limit my masculine role to white patriarchy, so I saw opportunity for change. I viewed all oppression as interconnected, and I still do.
I also considered applying to African-American Studies programs because race is where I sensed a greater battle. The tension between whites and blacks is strongest for me. It is simple to interact with women regardless of race. There is a natural attraction to the opposite sex; and most men have mothers, sisters, and daughters to relate with. In contrast, white men are not required to mix with black men to the same degree. White and black men have been historically marginalized from each other. At the blue-collar level, even with the same minimum wage, black men were still competition for low-paying jobs. Poor whites have lynched and terrorized black men, and blacks have also attacked us in retaliation. The capacity for violence exists on both sides. I approached black men with caution and fear, much like they responded to me as white trash. White and black men are not natural enemies, but we have been locked in a struggle for so long that it seems normal.
My father joined a white gang in his youth that fought against African-Americans in the Watts section of Los Angeles. However, his perceptions about race were altered once he mixed alongside of blacks during wartime. Likewise, in college I lived with a black mathematician for one year and a Senegalese roommate for seven months. Education created unity instead of the usual divisions.
Despite my interest in African-American Studies, I decided to focus on gender instead. Women Studies had a sense of personal urgency to it. I witnessed one woman getting raped in Utah and another publicly beaten by her boyfriend in Seattle. I have seen even more brutal acts against women, that I refuse to introduce into this text for personal reasons. I needed to deal with the violence that I had witnessed in my lifetime. Therefore, even as a man, Women Studies had importance for me.
I realized at the first orientation meeting that my Women Studies colleagues were willing to play hard ball. In the opening introduction female colleagues launched into diatribes about being raped, beat, and sexually harassed. When it was my turn to mention myself I babbled. I fucking babbled incoherently and wondered what I got myself into. It seemed silly to talk about masculinity or poverty. I almost confessed to reading pornography, which would have resulted in immediate suspension of my license to practice Women Studies.
Women’s bodies are different than mine and that makes me curious. I can’t inhibit the feeling of attraction. There was this damn instinct to look across the room and think: that woman is very beautiful, that woman has an incredible body, that woman has a sweet voice. I couldn’t help thinking about relationship material. Damn, male gaze. What was I doing here? I started wondering if it was too late to study anthropology or philosophy instead.
In the first semester woman started checking me out, but not in the demented way that I might have appreciated most. I was a novelty. They wanted to bounce ideas off me. I loved it. Each day our teachers supplied us with new theories that shocked our understanding of gender. Radical feminist theory was the one emphasized most and practically mandated. This theory hypothesizes that sexism is the oldest form of oppression. All men control women in the form of patriarchy. Female oppression manifests itself in many ways: violence, images of beauty, the institution of marriage, the culture of romance, work discrimination, reproductive rights, and so forth. All types of oppression and hierarchy originate from patriarchy. If oppression is to be eliminated than the focus should be placed first on women. The battleground often focuses on women’s bodies. Men manipulate women to gain access to women’s bodies. Women could, therefore, be empowered by collectively working together to reclaim control of their bodies.
A group of us would drink coffee and discuss these ideas afterwards. There was often a stark contrast between radical feminism and the life plans of my female colleagues. Even feminists wished for marriage, children, and romance. Women wanted to explore sexual cravings which objectified their partners in theory. Each participant in a Women Studies program deals with such internal debates: emotions vs. theories, intuition vs. intellect, desire vs. shame.
My own dilemma was how to explain my class background in light of my patriarchal privilege. In theory, male privilege insures the that I earn a higher wage than women in the same field, that I have freedom to walk at night, and that I don’t feel pressure to conform to an image of beauty. On the other hand, I was literally escaping homelessness and dead-end jobs, I lived in neighborhoods where a night stroll was only begging for mugging, and I struggled to attract women by projecting a false image of financial security. I struggled with debt while many female colleagues paid tuition with their father’s money. The women had privileges that I lacked. There was an entire gray area that didn’t fit into a tidy theory.
My dilemma bloomed in a course on systems of oppression. The professor asked us to gather in our oppressed groups for discussion and to present the results afterward. Over two thirds of the class formed a group as women that was split in half because of its large size. Two women met to talk about race, and two lesbian women converged to speak about heterosexual bias. Not a single woman joined my group to discourse on class oppression. It amazed me that not one woman, in a class of 35, had come from a background of poverty.
A few of the women were outright wealthy. They wanted to break the glass ceiling while I just wanted a roof over my head. I still saw a means to participate in the exercise by writing about poverty. However, the professor refused to let me pursue class oppression since I had no partner. In result, the topic of class was virtually eliminated from the room. I wish I could have wiped my poverty away so easily.
I tried to accommodate my teacher by offering to speak about the oppression of men since there was another male in the class. This option was also rejected. The teacher clarified that men could not be oppressed as a group, since they are benefactors of female oppression. I rationalized that forced conscription was a form of oppression. The military draft is imposed on younger males by more powerful men. I also wanted to explore the issue of work and the stereotype of the male provider as reflections of a kind of oppression. I wasn’t saying that they are forms of oppression, but merely that I wanted to investigate the idea in this class. Could a man oppress another man; and if not, what is the nature of conflict amongst men? The majority of violent crimes in the U.S. are male-to-male, therefore it is reasonable to ask if there is a type of oppression involved. The professor explained that white men could not be oppressed because minorities groups do not have power over us. We could only experience occasional episodes of injustice. I was confused.
I almost had to leave the classroom because I was left no way to participate in the exercise. I couldn’t speak about my poverty nor my gender. I could have told stories about being a non-Mormon in Utah, but there is no name for that type of oppression. Eventually, I relented by claiming a disability. The other man had Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome from combat during the Gulf War (he saw Iraqis getting tortured and killed). I resurrected my speech impediment, pointing out that I was born with hardly any trace of lips, and presented to class that I was required to attended special “retard” sessions in elementary school. It was embarrassing to recall, and I have since learned to control the impediment. My partner didn’t want to share his war experiences with women that had never served in combat either. For this class assignment we became weak, handicapped, and victimized men. It was what feminist in the classroom could understand. The two of us went out for a beer afterward so we could really talk about what was on our minds. We formed a men’s group afterward for self-exploration. We both learned to be silent and sit passively in women studies classrooms.
After that semester I knew never to discuss poverty. It would have been labeled divisive or resistant to feminism. Besides, it was too awkward for female colleagues to admit to class privilege when they emphasized their own gender oppression so often. Racism is also touchy when white feminists are confronted by it. Many female suffragettes were willing to allow slavery to exist if white women were given the right to vote (racism would be dealt with afterward they rationalized). Women Studies majors are primarily white women with only a scattering of minorities represented in classrooms. Yet, these privileges are placed on a backburner as more supportive theories are placed in the forefront. The complicated gray areas present dilemmas that they are reluctant to confront. However, this awkwardness is exactly what I dealt with everyday as a impoverished white male. I studied both my privilege and my oppression. I may represent “white patriarchy”, but I also carry the label of “white trash”. This gray area is significant even if it doesn’t fit into proscribed academic theory. Feminist theory could not help me. It could not acknowledge me as anything deeper than an patriarchal force. I could not surrender my male power even if I wanted to. In the future, I took more classes in the unmarketable fields of sociology, anthropology, history, and philosophy. However, I never switched majors. Women Studies permanently marked my university transcripts like a brand. It was a social tattoo. I made a commitment to fight violence against women, and intended to honor this vow with hard work. I rolled the dice and paid the price. My graduation ceremony was a return to homelessness. Women Studies birthed me in the form of a tramp.
When I gazed into the cracked rear view mirror of my Nippon Stanza® I saw a snake that shed another layer of skin. Dirty and unshaven, I was homeless once again. I worked hard for my MA degree, hoping to rebuild my life, only to come full circle back to the streets in 1997. This time I owned a car which was a start. I had mobile shelter and an open road. In earlier times, a poor white male, in my situation, might board a rail car to find short-term work in agriculture. However, these options are not easy in modern times. High speed trains are dangerous to jump onto and train gangs prey on those who do. Farms have been mechanized with tractors and automation, so there is less demand for human labor. There are always more desperate migrant willing to do the task at a cheaper rate. The small, independent, farms that might have hired me in the past are being rapidly confiscated for unpaid loans. One or two bad harvest season and corporations buy them up during hard times. The countryside lacked opportunity, so I headed to the nearest big city. I migrated in search of the American Dream.
As I drove on the highway in 1997, white strips seductively zipping by, I believed that my car carried me to new opportunity. When Horatio Nelson Jackson made the first coast to coast road trip in 1903 (from San Francisco to New York), it opened up new doors for migrant travelers. The first intercontinental road, the Lincoln Highway, officially opened in 1923, and it was one popular route taken by the unemployed during the Great Depression. The new octopus spread its tentacles across United States, squirting black oil like ink, writing a new chapter of America. In desire to expand military capacity, and to covertly move ballistic missiles, Dwight Eisenhower passed the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 which inaugurated the construction of 42,500 miles of highway. By the time of my birth, in 1963, the infrastructure was already in place to use these road during future hard times. The open freeway felt like freedom, but there is always a cost to pay. I was about to learn the journey’s fare.
My problem of poverty remained unsolved with a MA Degree. Women Studies only compacted my debt by adding on another thick layer of student loans. My advanced degree bought time, but my homelessness only hibernated for three years. It woke from its slumber upon graduation. I applied for graduate school while living on the streets and I returned to them thereafter. I did not fix the wheel and the cycle of poverty kept revolving in a loop. Meanwhile, I raced my car down Hawthorn Street in Portland, Oregon, knowing that Women Studies was behind me. Few physical artifacts remained other than my MA Degree – which was stashed under my car seat. My textbooks were all sold, my apartment lost, and employment finished. The only security that I had was my car. I moved on. I took a breath of chilly air, and held it while thinking of the past three years in graduate school. When I exhaled the night wind blew my thoughts back to Corvallis. I was free once again. I almost laughed when I asked myself one more time: Why am I still fucked up and homeless? I had come full circle. I was a serpent that swallowed its own tail. The Oregon rain continued its drizzle. I returned to my Möbius strip of poverty. Where next? It was time to break out the diving rod once again.
In my new curiosity there was a hunger made of night.
I searched for meaning under star’s breath burning.
I pulled myself through the streets.
Rain sizzling beneath swallowing tires.
My house perched upon my back.
So on this melting night I blended with the Gods, deviants, and savages
who worshipped the draining streets
beneath a glass moon’s night glow.