If we mean to have heroes, statesmen and philosophers, we should have learned women.
— Abigail Adams
Interview with Alaha Ahrar, student of International Affairs at the University of Mary Washington and Afghani Poet:
Interview with Connie Smith, Professor of Women’s Studies in the English, Linguistics, and Communication Department at the University of Mary Washington:
Who is your favorite female author? What is your favorite women-focused book? Poem?
Sorry – it’s impossible to choose just one. Alice Walker (of ‘The Color Purple’), Ruth L. Ozeki (of ‘My Year of Meats’), Isabel Allende (of ‘The Stories of Eva Luna’), Barbara Kingsolver (of ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ and ‘The Lacuna’), Annie Lamott (of ‘Traveling Mercies’ and ‘Plan B’ among others),Edwidge Danticat (of ‘Krik? Krak!’ and ‘The Farming of Bones’), Audre Lorde (of ‘Sister Outsider’), Bessie Head (of ‘When Rain Clouds Gather’) – and those are just the wonderful women authors who occur to me right now. There are MANY more! For Thursday Poems, I have read work by Lucille Clifton, Gabriela Mistral, Alfonsina Storni, Rosario Castellanos, Gloria Anzaldua, Mary Oliver, Maxine Kumin, and, of course, Emily Dickinson. I love them all.What needs to be changed about the way women are portrayed in today’s literature and art?Women ARE making those changes in art and literature. Historically, women have been absent from the art world, but not only are we now celebrating the works of Judy Chicago and Frida Kahlo, we are also re-discovering the work of artists such as Artemesia Gentileschi and re-evaluating their contributions. In literature, the only possible ending for a heroine was marriage (Jane Austen), or death – often by suicide (‘The Awakening,’ “To Room Nineteen”). A modern phenomenon is to celebrate strong, positive, successful women, even healthy and funny women (like Gina Barreca), and that is a very welcome change.What drew you to women’s studies?I first discovered Women’s Studies when I agreed to teach a course titled “Women in Literature.” Dr. Carol Manning helped me a lot with her syllabus and books, and that semester I read for the first time some of the classic pieces: ‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf, ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin, “To Room Nineteen” by Doris Lessing, “Compulsory Heterosexuality” by Adrienne Rich, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston – to name a few. I was hooked! Then when a summer seminar for faculty interested in teaching the Intro to Women’s Studies was organized, I signed on. The course was already on the books, thanks to Janet Wishner, but hadn’t been taught in quite awhile. The group designed a common syllabus and read a lot more: ‘Beloved’ by Toni Morrison, ‘The Mermaid and the Minotaur’ by Dorothy Dinnestein, anthologies like ‘Feminist Frontiers’ and ‘Women: a Feminist Perspective’ and essays on race, class and gender. I was the first volunteer to teach the course and have enjoyed teaching it ever since.What advice would you give to people who want to explore women’s issues?That’s easy – read! Also go to lectures, exhibits of women’s work, concerts featuring works by women composers, readings of women’s work in prose or poetry – learn about and celebrate women in all their “infinite variety.”Is there a particular experience that has defined how you approach women’s issues?Like all women my age (I’m 65), I have MANY such experiences, from experiencing sexual terrorism when I was 15 to Joan Baez when I was 19 to childbirth when I was 27 and 30 to divorce when I was 31. Each experience has – and many more have – profoundly shaped and influenced my approach to women’s issues.Why should we be studying women’s issues academically?If the point of the educational enterprise is to expand intellectual horizons for students, then studying women’s issues academically is essential.Who do you think are the most influential people in the field of women’s studies and why?This is a difficult question because the range of influence is so broad. Historically, important women in the Movement have been: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Margaret Sanger, Virginia Woolf, Betty Friedan, Adrienne Rich and many others. Currently, women of color such as Patricia Hill Collins are making great contributions as are women such as Naomi Wolf, Susan Faludi, Gloria Steinem, Jean Kilbourne, and Margaret Atwood. Again – this is a very partial list.