On female power

I just graded about twenty exams in a row from students who, when asked an essay question about masculine desires and feminine gender performance in American women authors of the 17th-19th centuries, responded with sentence after sentence about how this or that character shows “female power.” And I’m going to barf if I ever see the words “female power” again.

She’s a mother. This is her female power.

She’s a nurse. She shows her female power.

She prays, which is her female power.

Not all of them are truly terrible essays, but it does make me want to compile a list of all the things a woman can do that shows her “female power.” I don’t know what the fuck “female power” is, or where they get this language from, but it’s so fucking irritating it makes me itch all over. It makes me never want to teach anything about gender again. 15 weeks of nuanced, painstaking discussion of important, conceptually difficult issues in the history of American gender and its relationship to race and labor, and all I get back is “female power”? Some of them even seem to have had a little awakening in the class of some kind, and thanked me for helping them [arg! fuck! and they’re so sincere, too!] find their “female power” but I don’t know what that means.

By the end of the semester, I got so tired of platitudes about rights and female power and equality and shit that I sort of got pissy with them and said, “What do you know about rights? What do you know about equality or freedom or any of that shit? You sit around feeling all ‘free’ and proud of your freedom, but be honest—you’re afraid of pissing off your mom. You’re afraid your friends will think you’re gay. How many of you have tested your ‘rights’? Or the limits of how you’re allowed to be a gendered person, not just in your little social sphere, but in the country? Whose happiness controls what you allow yourself to want?” I was being kind of a dick. It’s my next-to-last-day-of-class mode.

And I think some of them got a little piece of what I meant by “freedom” as something other than the thing US people say so they can feel superior to someone somewhere else who, as far as they will ever actually experience of life themselves, has exactly the same, if not more actual freedom. But when it comes to being a woman in the US, let me tell you, you don’t have to be radical or creative; every little thing you do shows your extraordinary FEMALE POWER. If you do something traditionally masculine, it’s female power. If you do something feminine, it’s female power. If you do something that has nothing to do with gender, keep in mind, that, as long as you do it while having a vagina, it’s female power.

I think the only way I can get over my irritation at this pathetic weak-tea infantile version of protofeminism (which, the more I think about it, might just be the best a 20-year-old can do? maybe? so I should chill?) is to start a chant. Feel free to join in, ladies! Just shout out the things you do in a day and we’ll all respond together: FEMALE POWER!

Opened mail—FEMALE POWER!

Made some eggs—FEMALE POWER!


Took a shit—FEMALE POWER!

Went to work—FEMALE POWER!

Drank a beer—FEMALE POWER!

Bought some socks—FEMALE POWER!

Washed my hair—FEMALE POWER!

This is kind of fun. I’m not mad anymore. Aw, now I’m going to miss them!

9 responses to “On female power”

  1. SG says:

    Felt left out — (I’M-NOT-A) FEMALE POWER!

    (but) Loved your post — (I’M-NOT-A) FEMALE POWER!

  2. F. P. Smearcase says:

    Put on Moon Pix and every time you read “female power” substitute Cat Power!

    Made dumb joke — (not) FEMALE POWER!

  3. Tim says:

    One of the most horrifying and frustrating parts of teaching college is reading misformed and underthought ideas regurgitated in some of one’s own words and phrases. It’s like class is a game of telephone and the students blip in and out of listening and comprehension all the way through. Then they take what they happen to remember or by chance wrote down and chop it up into a word salad for the final papers and exams, no matter how disconnected what they write is from what was discussed in class or given to them in lectures.

    One of the things that is going on here, it seems to me, is that college-age humanoids have a hard time processing subtleties. Everything is one way or the opposite, and that’s that. Something is racist or it’s not, sexist or not. I’m thrilled that your students had the opportunity to take your class and get exposed to, um, FEMALE POWER, no matter how unsubtle their understanding of feminism is. At the very least you have jumbled some of their received notions of gender and power. It will take some time for them to sort it out for themselves. Some will; many won’t. All the same, you have done yeowoman’s work by sinking your theoretical spade into the murky parts of their minds and turning that shit upside down.

  4. A White Bear says:

    The big coup was getting a few of them to stop apologizing for having knowledge or ideas, and to start asking to be taken seriously. One young woman who struggles with some ESL issues gave me a very sweet card saying that she learned in my class that she will no longer be ashamed of her accent or making mistakes; she knows she has ideas and something to contribute, and she may have to work on expressing them in a way that others will understand, but it’s not shameful to be learning English, or to be a woman who speaks. It’s sad to me that so many of my women students feel so much shame about being women that just opening their mouths feels like a feminist act, but I guess we start with baby steps.

  5. Tim says:

    Yay! That’s plenty of victory for one class.

  6. A White Bear says:

    I would feel a little more successful if they had learned something about early American literature.

  7. swells says:

    4: that’s huge! HUGE!

    3: As Simon and Garfunkel one wrote about reading term papers, “All my words come back to me in shades of mediocrity.”

  8. J-Man says:

    AWB, do you ever hear this statement? “I”m not a feminist or anything, but…..”
    That used to really piss me off.

  9. A White Bear says:

    I don’t tend to hear it now! I remember when that happened, and it was only a few years ago when it stopped, but I do think there has been some good re-framing of why it is important to be a feminist. Now I feel like I’m as likely to get good feminist readings from male students as from the women. While I take issue with the low goals of some of their feminisms, I am glad that they’re not as resistant to the term.