Observations on the 2009 NWSA Conference

I spent November 12 through 15 at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Atlanta. It was a delightful weekend full of way too many thoughts on gender, sexuality, and equality. It’s taken me a while to write about the experience because I wanted to let some of my powerful reactions to simmer for a while. Now that I’m almost two weeks removed, I have a few comments to make:

1) Feminists do have style. I know the reputation: Feminists are ugly. They are dowdy. They have hairy legs and saggy breasts. They don’t show any skin. It’s all lies. There were beautiful women abound in all shapes, sizes, and colors, of all ages, wearing some of the cutest ensembles I have ever seen.

2) The sex wars continue. When studying feminism, I’ve encountered lots about the so-called “sex wars” of the late 1970s and the 1980s. In my idealistic worldview, I like to pretend that these are over. We now recognize that sexuality is often an important part of human existence, and that as long as sex occurs between consenting adults, it is just a (often fun) part of life. Yet, the topics of BDSM and female submission kept popping up. Even in sessions on entirely unrelated topics, participants would suggest that womenfolk’s lower place in society is because of the inherent degrading nature of heterosexual sex, the “female torture” that occurs within BDSM, or the “pornification” of American culture. Inevitably, someone else would counter that sexual freedom and expression is a valuable component in society. Really, it’s been thirty years and the great sex wars still continue?

If you’d ask me, I’d say it’s time to get over it. Sex is fun. Sex is good. Sex is an expression of desire and attraction, as well as the more animalistic nature within us all. Sex can be loving and vanilla, sex can be rough and kinky. I can be sexually dominant, I can be sexually submissive. I can have sex within long-term relationships or I can have sex with my friends. I can be aware and responsible for my own actions, while also assuring that my partner(s) are fully consenting. The sex wars have been going on for a decade longer than I’ve been alive, and even I’ve got this figure out. Isn’t it time to move on and focus on some more pressing issues upon which we can all agree?

3) Some people never change. Related to the previous observation, I was surprised at how unwilling certain participants were to consider new viewpoints. For example, on a presentation about transgendered individuals as part of the feminist movement, I had to listen to the two older ladies sitting behind me trading snide remarks for the duration of the hour. “The one on the left, that’s a he/she,” one of them said. The other added, “He can’t be part of the feminist movement, he’ll never be a real woman.” I think it can be valuable to admit what you don’t understand or are not comfortable with, but some of the comments I heard were downright disrespectful.

4) Race divides. For a conference entitled “Difficult Dialogues” that focused on issue of intersectionality, there were surprisingly few intersections happening. While I will admit that there were some truly inspiring presentations delivered to diverse crowds, there also seemed to be some strong racial divides. Even during Angela Davis’s keynote speech, the audience was largely split by skin color.  In my life, I try to break down barriers and have difficult dialogues. On the institutional level, however, it was difficult to observe.

5) Women’s centers can be powerful community resources. I am probably going to get in trouble with my friends for saying this, but the women’s center at my university does very little. In the past, it was a valuable community resource, and I’ve heard great things about the events they sponsored. Even last year, Inga Muscio, author of Cunt, spoke on campus. I don’t want to place blame on the women’s center leadership, as I think the problems lies more in the structure of the center and its position under student government than in a lack of passionate leaders. Anyways, women’s centers at other colleges and in other communities are doing so many things. They are financially independent! They have full time, professional employees! They attend conferences and discuss the challenges and successes they experience. They organize not only social events, but cultural and political events. They are resource centers and activist gathering places. We need more.

Don’t get me wrong. The conference was amazing. Next year in Denver, anyone?

    • Rachel
    • November 27th, 2009

    Nice recap, thanks!

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