“The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.”
– Georgia Douglas Johnson, “The Heart of a Woman,” 1918
When I was a sophomore in high school, I idolized my U.S. history teacher, Mr. Nash. He didn’t rely on funky gimmicks or historically inaccurate films to do his job for him. He taught simply, with an overhead projector, a thick folder of transparencies, and the sound of his voice. If you can believe it, we didn’t fall asleep. Mr. Nash taught us like we were adults, and so we hung on every single word he said, frantically scribbling notes, frantically seeking his approval. He graded us like we were adults, too. Even in college, I swear I never worked so hard for an A as I did in his class…
But right here… Right here is where I start to falter when I tell the story of this remarkable man, where I type and delete, rinse and repeat, deliberate for hours. Because, to be honest, Mr. Nash changed my life. It was in a dark classroom lit only by the overhead projector that I first learned of Oberlin College and decided that was where I would get my degree. It was only a few weeks later that I decided I would be a history major, because Mr. Nash had taught me that history could make you laugh, that what was past could make you feel. But it’s what Mr. Nash failed to teach me that’s changing my life right now.
I was an impressionable fifteen year old when Mr. Nash joked that women should get in the kitchen and make sandwiches. I laughed. We all laughed. When two girls in the class tried to challenge him–one a social outcast, the other a popular but well-known grade-grubber–he talked circles around them and blew their arguments to smithereens, making them out to be crazy biddies. Why shouldn’t he? He was an educated adult; they were children. We all kept laughing.
I was an impressionable fifteen year old when Mr. Nash introduced Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminist Mystique, as “the ugliest woman in the world.” I was fifteen when I went around repeating those words like they were the word of God. I didn’t know anything about the significance of her work, but I knew she was ugly, and I sure thought that was funny. We learned about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in much the same terms. Their achievements were always belittled by their appearance.
I was an impressionable fifteen year old when Mr. Nash tried to explain away a question we all couldn’t answer on the A.P. exam that year. It was about Republican Motherhood. In college, I wrote upwards of ten essays, one seminar paper, and one senior thesis on how Republican Motherhood shaped women’s lives in the early American republic. When I was fifteen, I had absolutely no idea what that meant, and I was okay with that, because Mr. Nash told us it was just some stupid question put on the exam by those darn liberal test writers, with their darn liberal agendas. We all scoffed in agreement. Those darned liberal test writers.
Now, this isn’t to say that Mr. Nash was a bad teacher. Let me say this: he was amazing. The amount of history he had to teach us before the exam in May was absurd, and somehow he managed. What’s more impressive is that he managed to teach us all that while keeping our attention and making it exciting for us. Like I mentioned earlier, I owe him my degree. And, to be honest, I probably owe him my passion for feminism today as well. (Just don’t tell him that, ha!) If I hadn’t taken his class, I never would have learned about Oberlin. I never would have found the same causes, identities, and mentors…I just wouldn’t be me.
But I was only fifteen when Mr. Nash held the future of my brain in his hands. I knew he was joking then, that he didn’t really mean what he was saying about women, that he was proud of me and my ambition. Now that I’m older, though, I understand the implications of those jokes. That women should be mocked for their bodies before we applaud their accomplishments–that women should be mocked for their bodies at all–should never be taught in schools, jokingly or not. The idea that women’s history is a specialty niche for hairy hippies and rich liberals and doesn’t concern the working (hu)man or belong in a standard curriculum is unacceptable. An educator should never make their students feel bad for what they believe, and they should never shoot down a young woman just learning to speak her mind.
To add perspective, I didn’t learn about the women’s movement until four years later, when I was a sophomore in college.
All this hindsight because I recently watched a wonderful film called MissRepresentation about the portrayal of women in the media. It’s on Netflix, and if you don’t have a Netflix account, you can watch it on Vevo. It has it’s problems. They keep saying “real women,” and, while I understand what they’re trying to say, it can be an unfortunately limiting phrase that has never sat well with me. Minor issues of diction aside, though, this is a documentary I think everyone should watch and watch again.
The first time I saw it, I felt like Antoinette Brown Blackwell when she wrote to Lucy Stone in 1846 saying, “For once I wished God had not made me a woman.” I felt empty and alone, trapped. Like, here was this tragedy of representation and I could feel it flowing through my own veins, affecting how I saw myself and interacted with others. There was no way to stop it. However, after a second viewing, much like Antoinette Brown Blackwell, I changed my tune. “I do not wish so now,” she wrote later, and the same is for me. I am a woman, and, because I am a woman, I will change the world. There’s a lot stacked up against us. Hell, people followed Hillary Clinton around shouting “Iron my shirt!” while she tried to discuss real world issues during the 2008 primary campaign. The media prefers to show us at our worst than at our best, but if we can slug through all the shit and find each other, there’s literally nothing we can’t do. The potential for change is ripe; the world is in need of a revolution. I may not be able to lead it, but I can, and I will, be a part of it.
Really, I don’t want to seem unappreciative. Mr. Nash may have neglected to teach me about the women that inspire me today, but he did teach me a few things–that I’m smarter than I think, that doors will open unexpectedly and lead me to amazing opportunities, and that we can’t head into the future without looking to the past. He inspired my passion, my career, all of it. I’ll never stop being grateful for that, and I’ll never stop wondering if he’d be proud of me today. But I was fifteen then, and I was a moron. He can no longer be my hero. The bandage has been lifted from my eyes, and I can no longer worship unconditionally. For a while, I lamented losing a hero. To be sure, it’s never easy, but there are enough strong, independent women in my life to guide me now. Somehow, I think I’ll be okay.