The following is a description of the 1992 National Women's Studies Association Conference, as described by Christina Hoff Sommers in her book, Who Stole Feminism? (1994:29-31)


Being aggrieved was a conference motif.  The keynote speaker, Annette Kolodny, a feminist literary scholar and former dean of the humanities faculty at the University of Arizona, opened with a brief history of the "narratives of pain" within the NWSA.  She reported that ten years ago, the organization "almost came apart over outcries by our lesbian sisters that we had failed adequately to listen to their many voices."  Five years ago sisters in the Jewish caucus had wept at their own "sense of invisibility."  Three years later the Disability caucus threatened to quit, and the following year the women of color walked out. ...


At past conferences, oppressed women had accused other women of oppressing them.  Participants met in groups defined by their grievances and healing needs: Jewish women, Jewish lesbians, Asian-American women, African-American women, old women, disabled women, fat women, women whose sexuality is in transition.  None of the groups proved stable.  The fat group polarized into gay and straight factions, and the Jewish women discovered they were deeply divided:  some accepted being Jewish; others were seeking to recover from it.  This year, concern extended to "marginalized" allergy groups.  Participants were sent advance notice not to bring perfumes, dry-cleaned clothing, hairspray, or other irritants to the conference out of concern for allergic sisters.  Hyperconcern is now the norm: at the first National Lesbian Convention in Atlanta, cameras were outlawed --on grounds that they might bring on epileptic fits.  . . . 



Eleanor Smeal, the former president of NOW, was scheduled to be the first speaker on the NWSA "empowerment panel," but her plane had been delayed in Memphis.  To pass the time, we were introduced to an array of panelists who were touted as being experienced in conflict resolution.  One woman was introduced as a member of the Mohawk nation who "facilitates antibias training."  Another, an erstwhile dancer, was described as a black lesbian activist who was "doing an amazing, miraculous job on campuses building coalitions." A third, who had training as a holistic health practitioner, headed workshops that "creatively optimize human capacity."



To keep our spirits high, we were taught the words to a round, which we dutifully sang:


We have come this far by strength,

Leaning on each other.

Trusting in each other's words.

 We never failed each other yet.

 Singing, oh, oh, oh. Can't turn around.

We have come this far by strength.


After several minutes of singing and still no Smeal, panelist Angela (the former dancer) took the mike to tell about "ouch experiences."  An "ouch" is when you experience racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, or lookism.  One of Angela's biggest ouches came after her lesbian support group splintered into two factions: black 

and white.  Tension then developed in her black group between those whose lovers were black and those whose lovers were white.  "Those of us in the group who had white lovers were immediately targeted....It turned into a horrible mess.... I ended up leaving the group for self-protection."  A weary Eleanor Smeal finally arrived and was pressed into immediate service. She confided that she was feeling discouraged about the feminist movement.... Smeal's liveliest moment came when she attacked "liberal males on campus," saying, " they have kept us apart.  They have marginalized our programs.  We need fighting madness."  It was soon time for another song.


We are sisters in a circle.

We are sisters in a struggle.

Sisters one and all

We are colors of the rainbow,

Sisters one and all.


As it happened, I did have a real sister (in the unexciting biological sense) with me at the conference.  Louise and I were frankly relieved to have the singing interrupted by a coffee break.  Cream was available, but perhaps not for long.  The ecofeminist caucus had been pushing to eliminate all meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products at NWSA events.  As the break ended, Phyllis, the panelist from the Mohawk nation, came around with two little puppets, a dog and a teddy bear, to inform us, "Teddy and his friend say its time to go back inside." Louise, who is a psychologist, was beginning to find the conference professionally intriguing.


*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Is it just me,

or does it sound as though this conference

was scripted by Woody Allen?

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    Gender Syllabus





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