Wednesday Reflections on WAM!2009

A week (plus) after WAM!2009, I'm finally getting around to blogging a few reflections. This was my second year attending WAM! Last year I went as a volunteer; this time I paid my way and wandered around the Stata center free of responsibility. It's an awesome conference for feminist people-spotting and in general spending time talking about all that stuff I spend my time thinking about virtually 24/7 (in some form or another) with people who are as obsessed as I am. Either we aren't as crazy as we likely all feel most of the time, or there are a lot of us crazies wandering free on the streets -- frankly, I'm not sure which is the more appealing option!

I've learned over the years that my stamina for conference sessions is limited: I reach "critical mass" when it comes to new and stimulating ideas fairly rapidly. So I limited my participation to two panel discussions and an informal lunch caucus -- and came away with lots to think about!  

The panels I attended on Saturday were "In/Out of Focus, Broadening a Feminist Lens: Gender, Non-Conformity and the Media" and "Feminist Blogging: From Journalism to Activism in Election Years and Beyond." Between the two panels, I joined an informal group of conference-goers at a lunch caucus to discuss "feminist sex ed." This lunchtime event, which I only found out about on the day of the conference, was both inspiring and dispiriting. On the one hand, it's awesome to hear from those in the diverse world of sexuality education (from schoolteachers to community organizers to college professors and sisters looking for resources to pass on to their younger siblings) about the work they are doing. On the other, it's frustrating to hear how much misinformation, legal restriction, community fear, and lack of resources and time limit possibilities.

One of the things that really struck me in the lunch caucus was folks' resistance to "co-ed" (non-gender-exclusive) sexuality education. As I have argued previously, the problem with sex-segregation in educational spaces is that young people who do not identify as male or female, or do not feel comfortable in environments in which everyone is presumed to be the "same" in some way based on sex/gender, are marginalized. I think it is particularly problematic in sexuality education, since the ostensible reason for separation is so that (hetero) girls and (hetero) boys won't be subject to scrutiny and embarrassment in front of other-sex folks. But this presumption of increased safety and comfort in single-sex environments breaks down for anyone who is not straight or gender-conforming.

As Jessica Fields has documented in her book Risky Lessons, women and girls do face a disproportionate amount of misogynist harassment in sexuality education settings that often goes unchallenged. Yet I'm hesitant to accept that sex-segregation is the way to go in addressing this problem. If nothing else, because it reinforces the sexist idea that men and boys are naturally disrespectful, misogynist pigs for whom containment is the best strategy. A far healthier (and feminist!) approach, it seems to me, would be to tackle the problem of sexism and respect head-on. It should be our collective responsibility to make sex education spaces safe and affirming for every person -- regardless of sex, gender, or sexual orientation.

This question of gender-segregated space and who is included was also a major topic of discussion in the first panel I attended "In/Out of Focus," since the topic was gender-nonconformity. This was the panel I was most excited about attending at the outset, since the line-up included one of my favorite feminist authors and one of my favorite feminist bloggers. And it did not disappoint! 

What the reality of gender-nonconformity means for "women-only" spaces is far from settled, even in feminist spheres (as a recent thread on gender-neutral restrooms at Feministing amply illustrated).  I thought both the panel and the audience members who participated in conversation gave a lot of nuanced and valuable perspectives on how conversations about sex and gender in feminism can take place without fear or bigotry.  Miriam Perez (see "favorite feminist blogger" above) talked about the need to be mindful of whom we are including when we use words like "women" or "female," and who we are excluding with that same language.  While no one is asking feminism to expunge the word "woman" from its reasons for being, it is also important to remember (as one of the panelists -- Julia Serano? -- pointed out) that "feminism and women are strongly related but not analogous."  Even among a group of folks who identify in the feminine spectrum, it's important to remember that not all of us have identical experiences of womanhood.  

The Q&A portion of this session was particularly strong, some of which Jill live-blogged over at Feministe.   You can also see live tweets from the session at Twitter #wam09gnc (oh, the crazy things one can do on the 'net!). 

My final panel of the day, "Feminist Blogging," introduced me to more new bloggers to add to my feminist-themed iGoogle pages (yes pages), and was a lively, reflective session on the lessons learned from the 2008 election about the interaction between the blogosphere and corporate media, between blogging and activism.  The conversaion also highlighted, for me, the way so many bloggers are able, through their blogs, to integrate their various life-works (parenting, employment, personal projects and passions, hobbies) in a web presence that somehow encompasses -- or at least touches upon -- all aspects of their personhood.  

The "Feminist Blogging" session helped me think, in a new way, about why keeping this blog has been so important to me over the last two years: As I make my way through graduate school, I often feel overwhelmed trying to find a path that will bring together the things that I care about into some sort of meaningful life and life's work.  This blog is one of the few public spaces where I can mix and match freely, shuffling and re-shuffling the various bits until the balance feels right and the relationships between thoughts and experiences are clarified.  It's an awesome privilege, and one which I am hopeful is mirroring the (albeit) messier "real world" version.
See the WAM!2009 conference site for a links list to further conference coverage.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for attending our panel and I'm glad that you enjoyed it!