A Feminist Formations Critical Response: Scholars and Activists Reflect on the Aftermath of the Election

Response from Dr. Brenda Weber, Professor and Chair of Gender Studies at Indiana University

Like so many – the majority – of people in this country, I have been saddened and heartsick since the election.  I’m leaning now on the support and wisdom of other leaders, who have figured out effective methods for fighting the good fight:  Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock, the Sanctuary Movement.  

So here, I don’t have great inspirational words to share.  I only want to say this:  Many of us are deeply blue faculty or students who work in deeply red states.  Because of this, going into the classroom and provoking students to think harder about social and gender justice, has brought new levels of risk in a place where many of us already felt vulnerable.

A grad student shared with me yesterday feelings of fear, apprehension, and despondency.  What is the point in moving forward with her dissertation, she wondered, when there probably won’t even be Gender Studies departments in the future.  Did she need a gun by her front door?  As a queer Jewish person, should she flee to a safer space?  And if so, where might that safe space be?  Even in San Francisco, swastikas and other expressions of hate speech are showing up in public spaces.  Our little blue bubble is becoming increasingly more fragile.

I worked to reassure my student that the study of women, gender, and sexuality studies is not going anywhere.  Even as I feel the precarity of our influence, I hold to these truths, both structural and ideological:  One of the consequences of the increased institutionalization of women’s studies centers, into programs, into departments, is that in many cases, universities have hard-wired financial support for gender and sexuality research into the mainframe of their identity.  This comes with its own potentially problematic consequences, of course.  As departments, we also become beholden to university metrics, to basic enrollment allotments, to justifying faculty lines through the university’s norms.  As feminist and queer scholar-activists in WGSS departments, we operate from within the mainstream and often-patriarchal organization that we strive to critique.  In turn, the kinds of protections that institutionalization offers are available for a small minority of departments, while programs, centers, and institutes are vulnerable to being pushed further to an ephemeral outside that makes them easy pickings for universities looking to “shrink its footprint” (the language of consolidation my own university uses to describe its present pause in hiring and faculty growth). 

But I remain convinced that the study of gender is not only important, it is critical to charting a path to the future.  The work we do is difficult, but it is essential.  I’ll close with an “emotion map” that one of the faculty in my department did to help students express their feelings post-election.  Protecting their anonymity, the faculty member encouraged students to write their feelings on post-it notes, messages of hope, sadness, defiance, and courage that are now posted in our front office.  “I’m mostly ashamed,” says one.  Another writes, “I’m so full of love and terror and rage.  I’m so scared for myself and the people I love.  I’m so overwhelmed by the magnitude of injustice in the world.”  The most powerful note, in my opinion, simply states, “confused, concerned, action.”  Indeed.


Response from Dr. Susan Shaw, Professor in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University

I’ve been in the U.K. since late August leading a study abroad on “Gender, Race, and Class in London.” For most of my students, this election was their first opportunity to cast a ballot for president of the United States, and so they went through all the steps to receive an absentee ballot and mail it back in plenty of time for it to be counted.

Then, together, we awaited what we hoped would be a firm rebuke to racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, transphobia, ableism, and hate. We planned a pizza party for Wednesday to celebrate.

Then, around 2 am in London, the election results started to come in on BBC One.

For many of my students, this study abroad is their first experience of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. For weeks they had been learning about how power and privilege work within systems of oppression in the U.K. and the U.S. They had learned to name the subtleties of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression. They had begun building theories to explain how systems of oppression disadvantage, marginalize, and mistreat entire categories of people. And they had begun to think about how we resist intersecting systems of oppression.

And then the election results started to come in on BBC One.

One of the students, a major in the sciences for whom feminist knowledge and analysis was brand new and who had embraced these new skills with enthusiasm, started to text me.

“This is terrifying to watch.”

“I wish I’d stayed in bed,” I replied, just beginning to acknowledge the little knot of fear that had started to take shape in my gut.

Shortly after that, I started to receive Facebook messages from a former graduate student.

“I’m worried.”

“Me too.”

My student in London: “I grew up with my father being the stereotypical Trump supporter, but he is so extreme that I didn’t realize nearly half of America was just like him. I had more faith in our country, as did Obama, in that the people would make the right decision.”

By now, it was 4 in the morning in London.

“I’m freaking out.” This from the former student back in Oregon.

We all started to feel sick.

“It’s the triumph of racism and sexism,” I messaged my former student, starting to give in to despair.

“I’m in full panic mode. My heart hurts and is so sad for our country,” she replied.

At 5 am I went back to bed.

When I woke up again at 9 am, I had messages waiting for me.

My current student: “I don’t know what to do. I’m at a loss for words.”

My former student was now leaving me voice messages, plaintive, fearful.

I sent her hug emojis. I wrote, “When they go low . . . .”

She responded, “We go high!”

It felt so inadequate.

I met my London students for pizza at 5 that afternoon. We spent the first hour together talking about how we felt (all of them have at least one target identity—women, people of color, queer, Jewish), what we feared, what had gone wrong. We talked about what we could do when we go back. We started to feel a little better. We began to realize that, despite what we have to face on our return home, we have not lost our ability to resist and to offer alternative visions. We talked more. We ate more. Eventually the conversation turned to other topics, and, by the time we left, we were less devastated and more determined.

My former student sent a message. She was still, in her words, “bummed out,” but she was contemplating opportunities for a new job in Oregon or a six-month position in Latin American working with sex trafficking victims and learning Spanish.

Something started to become clear to me. While I’m younger than Hillary Clinton, I am of the generation of women who remember a world before Title IX, before Roe v. Wade, before Anita Hill. For many of us, Hillary Clinton embodied our experiences of sexism and our hope for smashing glass ceilings. My students don’t remember the same world. I’m glad for that. I realized, though, that the time is now for moving to new visions of feminist futures and that my students have profound roles to play in that process. I had a moment of feeling a passing of the torch. After three decades of this work, I am tired and angry. But my students (current and former) give me hope. Now, in no way am I ready to quit fighting. As Bernice Reagon Johnson sings, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

I cannot rest. But I can recommit to pouring myself into my students, to educating new generations with the tools of feminist analysis and activism as they take up the struggle and become the leadership of movements toward social justice.

I’ve spent the last six years in administration. I stepped down in September, and now I’m ready to go back into the classroom (which I always loved best of all) with a new fire for my students and my content. They are my hope. They are our country’s and our world’s hope.  If I can help them in the struggle, then I will do my part. We will stand on the front lines together against racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, transphobia, ableism, and hate.

As a feminist educator, I have always been oriented toward a student-centered classroom, active learning, co-creation of knowledge, and activism. This election has renewed my commitment toward those things and to what bell hooks has called “teaching to transgress.” The call to education as a liberatory praxis is more profound than ever for me. I am no longer devastated by the election. I am inspired. My students, the future they can bring, their idealism and dedication, inspire me. Now, more than ever, I have a renewed and optimistic commitment to feminist education. I find myself humming the South African anthem, “We shall not give up the fight. We have only started.”


Response from Dr. Melinda De Jesus, Professor and Chair of Diversity Studies at California College of the Arts.

Poem: Monstrous, or what to tell my kids on November 9, 2016

“The old world is dying and the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.”
Antonio Gramsci.

It's a gorgeous sunny Wednesday afternoon in my middle class but quickly gentrifying Oakland 'hood
and all I feel is
It's also my son's 11th birthday, but it's almost too hard to think about that.

Today I've heard from other moms that their kids went to bed weeping and woke up to cry even more.
The 13 year old boy across the way poured a cup of bleach and asked his mom if this was “a good
The 12 year old girl on the other side of the street is hysterical wondering if she's going to be
taken from her parents.
My own daughter (7) asked me if Trump would come and kill me now, and would he kill all her black
friends too?
"What's going to happen, mama?" I have no answers.
All I can do right now is hug my kids even tighter.

All I know is that I'm even more committed to the work I've been doing all my life. And I'm not
going down without a fight.
I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

you have yet to see my brown and righteous fury

Melinda Luisa de Jesús
(Loud Pinay and Proud)



Response from Dr. Qwo-Li Driskill, Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in WGSS at Oregon State University

Open Letter to My Students

Dear Students:

I've been trying to figure out how to talk with you all. It's an odd time to be out of the country, and, like so many of us, my emotions are swinging between grief and rage and fear and steadfast resolve to continue the slow, deliberate work of revolution.

Here's what I want you to know—you're all treasured and loved very much by the faculty in this program, including myself. I hope that you're all taking care of yourself and each other in what feels like a particularly dangerous time.

Immediately after the prediction that Trump would win the electoral college, the coalition that his campaign created between right wing organizations and angry white Christians who feel disenfranchised and threatened by the first Black president, by the prospect of a woman as president, by the interventions that queer and trans activists have made into the system—have found themselves emboldened to enact physical, verbal and emotional violence against marginalized people in a way that, while neither new nor unprecedented, is certainly meant to feel personal, threatening, and frightening.

I'm writing this to you from Montreal, Canada at the National Women's Studies Association Conference, where many of you are as well. We are all hearing that very visible hate violence and harassment are skyrocketing on college campuses. Friends are posting on Facebook about the dramatic increase of calls to the Trevor Project from LGBTQ youth. I'm hearing stories and seeing images of horrific racist, Islamaphobic, and anti-Jewish graffiti. My partner tells me that people in my friendship network and my neighborhood are afraid to leave their homes right now.

First, I want to remind you that we'll survive this. Many of you already have survived. Many of our students, in fact, have already survived horrific state violence, and that's why you're here in our program. While people are trying to claim that Trump is unprecedented, he's not, really. Regan was a nightmare of a president, who worked to systematically and culturally dismantle the work of revolutionary movements from the 60s and 70s. Both Bushes were equally terrible. And Obama's international policies have been just as violent as any other president. And, I am only able to write you this letter because my ancestors survived Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act. No president of a colonizing nation will be, or can be, the person to save us. We have to save ourselves. And we will.

Secondly, I want to apologize. I think that we, as faculty in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and other activist-based disciplines in the United States, have failed. I think we have failed because we do, in fact, have a huge impact on the way political movements are formed. We forget this fact, sometimes, in the midst of worrying about our jobs, reacting to the neo-liberal university, and navigating our ways through capitalism as marginalized bodies doing political work within institutions that, mostly, weren't designed for us.

And so we've become very good at deconstructing texts. And we've become very good at teaching students to deconstruct language to look for the mechanisms of power present. This isn't the first time I've worried that, collectively, we were failing. Some kinds of "tumblr activism "and the "call out culture" that folks have started to recognize as often a cover for abusive behavior use the kinds of analyses we teach. On tumblr, or abusive behavior on Facebook, I often see an analysis that is straight out of WGSS courses from the last 20 years. I suspect that we've taught one too many media analyses in our classes without also asking our students, and each other, what we want to create instead. We're all brilliant at tearing down the logics of power, but don't always teach how to build something else. And in that, I think we've failed.

We've failed because the pressures of our jobs are real, particularly as marginalized faculty. We've failed because we're more worried about the way our activism inside the academy could risk our jobs or make our jobs much more difficult than remembering that, in the words of Audre Lorde, "it is better to speak/remembering/we were never meant to survive." We've failed because when we've made the argument that change can't happen within the academy, that it's not connected to life outside the academy, as if our bodies disappear once we leave campus. We've become excellent at exposing power within the increasingly corporate university, and not as excellent imagining—and building—what we want in the world instead. As my mentor Malea Powell always warned us while I was a PhD student, deconstruction is easy. We're trained to do it. We can do it in our sleep. Making something else is hard.

And this failure, I worry, means that white people are organizing against their own self-interests (which, in fact, would be the dismantling systems of oppression) in order to solidify white power. We've deconstructed, and have taught you to deconstruct, everything around you—certainly an important part of this work—but haven't modeled, or taught you, how to refuse some of these systems by building something else.

Grace Lee Boggs makes a distinction between work and jobs. Jobs are what make money for us in a capitalist system. Work is something else: it's meaningful labor that contributes to our communities and nourishes our bodies, minds, and souls. Most of the time I feel lucky that my work is my job as well. But sometimes it is easy to get distracted by our jobs and forget that we have work to do and that our work is what creates revolution—what Boggs (to paraphrase) describes as slow and deliberate creating of communities and systems outside of the current one we live in—which she distinguishes from rebellions, which are only temporary ruptures in the system.

And if our current moment does anything generative, it's to remind us that we have work ahead of us, and that we can no longer wait to reprioritize our work in the world over our jobs. Which is risky. And not easy. And not without consequence, probably. We know that.

But here's the thing: if I have a tenured position but my partner is afraid to leave the house, or if I am afraid to leave the house and you are afraid to come to campus, or I am too exhausted to grade papers because of grief and trauma, and you are too afraid and too exhausted and too afraid and too exhausted and we're all too afraid and too exhausted and too angry because it happens so much and the again/again/again of this system is frightening and exhausting and traumatizing, but you know, I'm worried about making full professor, and, what if I say "revolution" to the wrong person? And if I'm exhausted and afraid and I need an income for myself and my family (because, you know, after writing a dissertation, or after getting a tenure track position or another any position at all in the academy, and after third year review and after tenure, if one is so lucky, there will always be another reason to be afraid and exhausted). And if then, I, or you, have a tenure track position or, you know, *whatever* job, but we forget our work in the world and are too afraid and too exhausted to do it, then we've failed.

So, I need your help. I need your help to imagine what world we want, and I need your help building it in tangible ways, starting right here, right now. This isn't a metaphor, or just a call to action. Let's do this right now, slowly and deliberately, with each other. There is work to do.

In Struggle,