guest post · women in the news

Guest Post: Let’s talk about women and public discourse

I’m thrilled to be involved with the Speaking Her Mind conference, running October 20-22, 2016 at the University of Calgary, and that’s because of the experience I had at the conference’s precursor last fall.

When my supervisor, Aritha van Herk, asked me to help out with the Discourse & Dynamics conference last year, I figured it would be an interesting experience on an intellectual level. The conference, after all, was about women as public intellectuals. But I found myself drawn into discussions that resonated with me in deeply personal and practical ways – discussions about issues I think about every day, issues I’ve struggled with ever since I entered the work force and became a mother.

I should have recognized the signs that this would be no ordinary conference. After a warm greeting from co-organizer Christl Verduyn of Mount Allison U, I found myself drinking Scotch with Margaret Atwood and her lovely husband. At that point I should have known that it would be a weekend of unexpected – and often profound – moments. I was trying to find the right moment to corner Atwood, who had just traveled to Sackville from Europe via New York, to go over the complicated logistics of her schedule, when she sat me down, handed me a glass and told me it was time to get the housekeeping business out of the way.

Problem solved.

I didn’t make it to all of the research panels, not because I’d had too much Scotch, but because I was busy chauffeuring, gofering or wrangling the amazing keynote women of D&D. Meanwhile, scholars gathered across the Mount A campus and dug into the gendering of public discourse, unpacking issues related to technology, feminist poetics, globalization and academics, to name just a few.

I did attend all of the discussion sessions, which featured women like Margaret Atwood, aerospace engineer Natalie Panek, activist Judy Rebick, writer Nicole Brossard and historian Charlotte Gray. The discussion sessions ranged organically through myriad topics, from how academics should speak to the public, to why professional women cook more often than their male partners.

Political scientist Janet Stein, who is one of the most articulate and accessible speakers I’ve ever heard, described a paradox about academic discourse, saying that “we have in our department some of the most brilliant theorists who are concerned with democratic theory, but they write for 500 others. And the public is excluded from the conversation even though it’s about how do we make our democracy more vibrant.” Later, I found myself nodding when I heard journalist Shari Graydon say, “the trouble is that women much more often decline opportunities to speak publicly than their male counterparts … [who are] willing to pontificate almost regardless of the topic.”

Backstage at Convocation Hall, I found myself thinking about conversations I’ve had with female friends and colleagues about the struggle to balance work, learning, family and friendships. I revisited fundamental questions like: 

Why is it important for women to work? Will women ever stop running their households? Why does our political system discourage women from participating? How can we change that?

These are big questions, too big for a single conference. And that’s why I’m excited about Speaking Her Mind. Like this wonderful Hook & Eye blog, Speaking Her Mind will keep us talking about the challenges that shape our lives as academics, feminists, mothers, partners, writers, students and workers. We’re often impossibly busy just getting from day to day, and we need opportunities to step back and look at life through a wider lens.

So I encourage you to attend Speaking Her Mind next fall, and I hope you’ll propose a paper for the conference. If you’re looking for inspiring ideas, check out the Discourse& Dynamics YouTube channel, where you can view the discussion sessions I’ve mentioned above. Hope to see you in Calgary next fall!
Jane Chamberlin is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Calgary. She is vastly over-qualified to write about the confusion between public and private life, having worked for two large corporations, raised two sons, freelanced from home and returned to school.

canada · media · righteous feminist anger · women in the news

Social Media vs. Slow Academe: Some thoughts on recent events

Less than two weeks ago, I was at a conference about Canadian women and/as public intellectuals. On the first of a series of moderated public panel discussions Christl Verduyn interviewed Dionne Brand, Mary Eberts, and Janice Stein. In the question and answer session I asked the panelists about risk. Specifically, I asked them to think with we, the audience, about the ways in which risk is inherent to a woman speaking in public. For context, I cited #GamerGate–specifically feminist gamer and media critic Anita Sarkeesian‘s then-recent cancellation of her public talk at the University of Utah after threats of violence…and the police’s response that guns are allowed on campus if the carrier has a legal permit. I also referenced a less widely known event: an article published on Hairpin by Canadian writer Emma Healey in which the author carefully thinks through her own experience of a relationship that proceeded despite unequal relations of power and was, for her, damaging and abusive. In both cases the women continue to receive varying degrees of public backlash for speaking publicly, albeit about substantially different issues. The connecting thread, for me, is that they are women taking up public space.

The panelists took up my question in turn. Janice Stein spoke about the threats she has received over her career and told the audience that she tries to keep them from her family so that they don’t worry about her. Ultimately, though, Stein’s advice was to keep speaking and ignore the threats. Dionne Brand spoke about some of the ways in which speaking publicly as a woman, and as a woman of colour, are always-already risky. And yet, said Brand, I have to do it. Not speaking would be worse than any public backlash, she told the audience. Mary Eberts responded last, and she said this: women can speak about almost anything in public and survive the backlash. In some cases, they can even use the public backlash to underscore the points they are trying to make. However–and this was the big however–Eberts then paused–there is one thing no woman can speak publicly about without fear of fundamental and ongoing reprisal and that, said Eberts, is sexual abuse. No one else responded after that, and we moved on to the next set of questions.

I have found myself thinking about Mary Eberts’s statement repeatedly in the last week and a half. Since yesterday, since the CBC announced that it was severing its relationship with Q host Jian Ghomeshi, and since Ghomeshi’s own public Facebook post, I find myself with Eberts’s words on a loop in my head. Let me be clear: I don’t know what happened between Ghomeshi and his partners.  I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. Lawyers for both sides have apparently been discussing allegations of abuse–by four women who allege varying degrees of non-consensual abuse, by Ghomeshi for defamation of character — but I wasn’t privy to those conversations. None of us were.   What I do know is this: women are statistically less likely to speak out about abuse. Women are more likely to trivialize their experiences. Women are more likely to use backchannels (emailing, using social media, talking) to alert one another to potentially harmful situations or to circulate stories of inequity. What I do know is that every day Mary Eberts’s words are given more evidence.

But that’s not all I know. I also know a thing or two about close reading and critical thinking. I know that recognizing, addressing, and changing longstanding systemic issues takes time, and that in a hyper-mediated world slow thinking–slow academe–is not something that is particulary valued. It is, however, something that is necessary. Take, for example, Ghomeshi’s Facebook status update. Reading it purely as someone trained as an academic (I am 50% of the Star’s strange, yet predictable qualifications for the women’s credibility: they are described as “educated and employed”) what I see it this: smart placement, smart rhetorical crafting. First, placement: Among other things, Facebook functions as a kind of faux-intimate confessional. As Chelsea Rooney wrote on Twitter:

In terms of rhetorical craft, the person who speaks publicly first sets the terms of the debate, or so it would seem. Ghomeshi’s post makes the issue about sexual preference and desire that falls outside the restrictive parameters of traditional heteronormative relations, whatever those are. I could go on, but the point, for this post, is not to close read this event. Rather, I’m interested in opening a discussion about how to sustain slow, deliberate, and public thinking about issues of misogyny, rape culture, and asymmetrical power relations in the face of the rapid-fire pace of social media. I’ve written elsewhere that I fear that restorative justice and social media are incompatible. I want to return to that thought here, by way of opening up conversation. How are we–by which I mean (for the purposes of readers of this blog) women working in the Canadian academic sphere–working to sustain slow thinking about these pressing issues in a public way. “Public” here is key, I think. Publicness is not a failsafe, often for women it is the opposite, but it does keep attention on a topic maybe–just maybe–long enough to shake the systemic conditions that sustain inequity.

I don’t know how to draw this to a conclusion, because having the final word is the last thing I want or feel prepared to do. Rather, I will leave you with this cartoon my colleague Xtine sent. The original posting is here:

faster feminism · global academy · slow academy · women · women in the news · you're awesome

I wanted to say something but…

Lately our numbers have been down, or at least it seems like they have been. We’ve been getting less comments, and I’ll admit that while I can think of many likely reasons–end of term, too much grading, hope of summer–ultimately I find myself fretting about it. I find myself thinking, what’s the point if we’re/I’m not garnering commentary? And more generally I find that I start turning my concerns onto myself: am I not pulling my weight? Should I bow out? Forge a new writing style? Have more links? Spend more time crafting my posts? Spend less? Am I going to regret publishing a post? Will it come back to haunt me? Worse, will it go unnoticed? These are just a few of the questions that run through my mind on a Sunday afternoon.

Granted, I worry about most everything, and I’ve worried about letting readers know that I worry about whether or not you’re reading. However, I find it reassuring and incredibly interesting that Sina Queyras aka Lemon Hound who, in my opinion is one of the most important women currently blogging, has expressed concerns about taking up public space on the internet. Here’s what she wrote in 2005 under the heading “Women blogging women”

Back in September I posted a note that said I was likely going to end my blogging adventure. Clearly I have decided not to. There are a number of reasons why, but the most important one may be–dare I say it–a question of gender. Tired old dialogue that it is, I noticed there are not enough women engaged in the discussion of poetry and poetics. Over and over again the voice seem to be male, shouting about this or that school or lineage…deciding what is important and what not in such confident and reductive tones as to shut out more cautious or considered voices.*

Now Queyras is obviously writing about discussions of poetry and poetics, and she’s writing this in 2005. Much has changed, certainly, but I cite her here to underscore some things that haven’t. Namely what she calls cautious or considered voices. Are those women’s voices? Queyras thinks so. In answer to her own question ‘where are all the women?’ she writes,

I have my theories. Look to the deletions, the hesitations, the reflective responses… the women are still out there thinking, their voices not quite up for the bombastic and instantaneous responses.

Hm. I’m certainly slow to respond most times, even here on a space I’ve helped to create. I’m still wondering how to agree and encourage and consider Heather’s post about post-term tristesse, or how to respond to Aimée’s most recent post about the performance of gender in a male-dominated field. It seemed relevant that my partner, who is a car enthusiast, send me a link to the latest Waterloo gender debacle from one of the car sites he reads, but I wasn’t sure how to work it into a pithy consideration of the post. In fact, I remember when Sina invited me to write a post for Lemon Hound; I very nearly backed out because I didn’t feel I had put enough work into it. She encouraged me (which I’d say falls into categories of both unpaid emotional work and mentorship), and she also told me to speak up.

Creating a space for dialogue and community is a collaborative act. Here is what poet Emily Kruse Carr has to say about it:

Collaboration is the most sincere form of adaptation.

By which I mean: vulnerable, requiring blind faith, solicitations for admiration, involvement, reciprocity, empathy. It is something like being in love: as a strategic mode of aesthetic presentation & performance.

Social coherence versus coherent self identity. Ok. That’s the problem.

Collaboration holds these tensions in play, rather than wistfully papering them over or simply & improbably wishing them away. It destabilizes the individual into an assemblage that is spatially & temporally contingent.

Collaboration is adaptation as animation: to move mentally, to excite an action at the neurochemical level. A waltz, for example, or a molecular mosh pit. Hypothesis building on the level of synapse.**

Which is to say that comments or no, there is no telling what kind of collaboration is happening here. And that it exciting. Or, to put it another way, perhaps fast feminism sometimes appears to be slow in the way we want the academy to be: considered.

But if you’re hesitating to join the conversation because you feel like what you have to say is unimportant, obvious, or passe, let me tell you: we’re here, and we want to know what’s on your mind.

*You can read this post and more in the beautifully produced Unleashed which was published by BookThug‘s fantastic Department of Critical Thought.

**This is an unpublished excerpt of a collaborative project Emily and I are working on entitled The Sonnets Project.