In the earliest days of coeducation, I cringed whenever a male professor asked the one female in a class of two dozen men for “the woman’s point of view” on Sons and Lovers or Macbeth or B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. I lived in fear of being called on in class. So I felt especially bad for any target of such an intellectual ambush — getting called out to speak for one’s gender, always in impossibly broad terms. “What would a woman say to Skinner’s denying the existence of free will and attributing human behavior to stimulus-response conditioning?”
Putting a student on the spot like that seemed thoughtless and unfair (although I also recall some astute answers that turned heads and brought smiles). In hindsight, I wonder if such questioning was a well-intentioned but clumsy attempt to encourage the woman to join in, to feel included, to participate in this new educational adventure that now offered her a seat.
Over time, we realize how little we knew back then — about most everything. About women and their perspectives, about human sexuality, social inequities and workplace improprieties, about power and the grip of technology and the effects of global warming. Seeing how much we have learned since “back then” should remind us how little we know now.
In the future we will discover a new supply of ignorances.
In the meantime, it is wise to listen and learn. It is all an education. Getting nailed by a woman’s kill shot in a friendly game of volleyball behind Farley. Being one of four guys who ventured into a sea of women at Saint Mary’s College one night for dinner. Listening to Marianne O’Connor’s valedictory address during our commencement in 1974, when she outlined her career ambitions as an engineer.
I was in Lyons Hall on Thursday night, September 20, 1973 — one of 50 million Americans watching ABC on prime-time television — when Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. Minutes later, hundreds of women marched across campus singing, “I am woman, hear me roar,” belting out with gusto the popular Helen Reddy song, “I Am Woman.” Our first-floor window was open, and we heard the proclamation: “I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.” The eruption of defiant self-determination made an impression. It said so much.
We all knew so little 50 years ago. We have been learning ever since. Part of that learning is to listen to people and pay close attention to what they are saying. That was the intention here, with this issue by and about women.
One unifying refrain across these particular and singular voices is the steadfast sense of female solidarity, of sisterhood. At least— to me — that seems to be one central, recurring theme. There are more, I’m sure; I am still listening and learning.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine