Teacher, Are You a Feminazi?
Julia F. P. Ostmann
And now, another edition of your favorite column, Megachurches, Malls, and Me: The Orange County Feminist! Many have called Orange County home: “The Real Housewives,” Disneyland, Richard Nixon, Rick Warren’s church/empire, California’s largest shopping mall, “The OC.” And then there’s me. Join me as we parachute into hostile territory, and discover if you can survive as a feminist on the ground.
At the front of the classroom stands Rush Limbaugh’s worst nightmare.
You know this teacher. Her walls are postered in antiwar and Al Gore bumper stickers, radicalized Rosie-the-Riveter decals, organic food propaganda. During the Pledge of Allegiance, her students chit-chat in their seats. She teaches a Feminism Unit. She is always “Ms.”
My encounter came in high school English, with a teacher whom I’ll call Ms. Saffron. Ms. Saffron was a middle-aged woman who embraced mini skirts, lipstick, rowing, and goji berries. And, as she proudly proclaimed, she was a Feminist.
“She gave me a B on my essay because it wasn’t feminist enough,” my classmates would complain. “Her class is so boring. We only ever read feminist stuff.”
“Feminist stuff,” apparently, included Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Harold Bloom, and a staged reading of David Mamet’s Oleanna, in which a boy in our class picked up a chair and pretended to viciously beat a female classmate.
Ms. Saffron’s particular brand of feminism revealed itself in potential essay prompts like, “Why did Faulkner choose to not give Caddy a voice (Feminism anyone?)” And she really taught that Feminism Unit. One assignment was a fill-in-the-blank worksheet on Kate Millett, Mary Ellmann, and Simone de Beauvoir, with questions such as “Roles: men = strong and ____women = weak and passive.”
Feminism became a classroom curse word, mixed up in the usual gripes about teachers: She favors the boys! Her multiple-choice tests are confusing! She says all these big words that don’t mean anything!
My peers equated feminism with anything that mentioned women. “Oh, so you’re writing something feminist?” one boy said, when I told him my essay on The Odyssey compared Calypso and Circe.
“Feminist,” my classmates would spit. Suck-up.
Small wonder girls in the class despised the word. One of my best friends avoided writing about women as a point of pride. Another girl answered Ms. Saffron’s in-class prompt on Ophelia with a scathing (and hilarious) satire of feminist critique. (In college, both women had a change of heart and now proclaim themselves feminists on Facebook.)
In Ms. Saffron’s classroom, I met Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, and Georgia O’Keefe’s portraits of floral pudenda. Alice Walker’s short story “Use” consumed my consciousness for a week. And who knew you were allowed to write poetry about your period? As much as I tried to hide it, I was building my own feminism thanks to Ms. Saffron’s taste in books.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not upset that my English class failed to produce an army of feminists, Ms. Saffron’s version or otherwise. I just wish my peers and I could have explored valid, vital topics of literary analysis—such as the roles of women and gender—without being branded sell-outs or simpletons. When feminism becomes a curse word, everybody gets cursed.