A graduate student at Rutgers University in the 1980s, I got a summer job as the Principal Secretary for the university’s Institute for Research on Women.
That was back when typewriters roamed the earth, and the institute’s Assistant Director assured me I’d been hired for my exceptional typing skills. (In high school I had taken typing instead of wood shop.) (It was the only class I got an A in.)
But I think she just liked the idea of having a token male as the office receptionist.
She and I became good friends eventually, after getting off to a rocky start. My first week there, she was plastering the walls around my desk with photos of famous women. At one point she turned to me and, as if an afterthought, said, “I hope you don’t mind my putting up these photos of great women.”
I told her that I’d always enjoyed looking at women and didn’t see any reason to stop now.
If looks could kill…
Later that summer she sold me her old Volvo, a terrible car. I had it a week when the left front wheel fell off as I was parking. Minutes earlier I’d been barreling down the turnpike.
If having a wheel fall off your speeding car could kill…
Whatever I was to women at the institute — token male, comic relief, oddball ally, alien in their midsts — to me the institute felt like a kind of refuge. Sometimes I think my greatest affinity with women is my having felt patronized by men my whole life. I preferred the fraternity of women. (It’s an oxymoron, I know). It felt right to me — more than the boys’ club.
The job was also a chance to learn contemporary feminist theory from some of the best in the business, the scholars and philosophers actually shaping it.
The greatest privilege was working for the institute’s director, Catharine R. Stimpson, one of our foremost literary critics and the founding editor-in-chief of the feminist literary journal, Signs. She would sometimes give me a draft essay to proofread. I felt honored.
Under Stimpson’s leadership, the institute won a Rockefeller Foundation grant to fund half a dozen fellowships in women’s studies from 1986 to 1989. I couldn’t imagine a better place to immerse myself in these ideas.
But why immerse myself in women’s studies? I had enough studies on my plate as a doctoral student of early English poetry. And why work as secretary for a women’s research institute? For that matter, why take typing instead of wood shop?
In retrospect, I think I was always looking for a way in, a way into an experience that felt right–or a way out of one that felt wrong, vaguely pursuing a more honest conversation with myself about all the ambiguities of who I am, including a nebulous gender identity..
But the time wasn’t right for this particular sojourn. Reagan had ushered in the reactionary politics of the 1980s and put progressives on the defensive, feminists esepcially, whom belligerent conservatives caricatured as men-hating shrews. Lines were drawn; both sides started hunkering down. Feminism grew more exclusive.
As a new group of scholars joined the institute, I didn’t feel welcomed anymore; Indeed, I sensed that I was perceived as the enemy at the gates. Stimpson had moved on to become director of the Rutgers Graduate School. Summer was over. The Volvo died.
The ‘80s saw the emergence of stand-up comics like Andrew Dice Clay, a one-trick pony whose entire shtick relied on bashing women and promoting a strident misogyny.
(In old footage of Clay’s performances, the guys in the audience aren’t laughing; they’re cheering–like neo-Nazis at a Trump rally. Not a good scene.)
It so happened that, around that time, Clay was scheduled to give a show on campus. Students and faculty alike publicly protested the university’s sponsoring an act like Clay’s.
The most prominent defense of Clay’s appearance, however, came from Stimpson, an adamant defender of freedom of expression, even acts like Clay’s, especially on the university campus, the battleground where good ideas and bad slug it out.
That same year, Rutgers showed Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris” starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider. I’d seen the film many times, but wanted to see it again. It’s one of the last films where Brando actually worked for his money, and his performance is astounding.
When I got there, a dozen students were outside protesting that the film promoted violence against women.
It turns out that such protests were entirely justified. In later years, Schneider would talk about how she felt raped by Bertolucci and Brando, coerced into doing simulated sex scenes that were not in the script. The real violence against women wasn’t on the screen; it was on the set.
No one knew that at the time. Taking a cue from Stimpson, I tried to engage earnestly with the protesters and defend the film as art. But none of them had actually seen the film, only a brief snippet in a documentary about cinematic violence against women.
I was appalled. I scolded them for behaving like our enemies, those who condemn without bothering about facts and evidence.
I offered the protest leader a deal. The film would be playing for two nights. “Let’s watch it together tonight,” I told her. “Show me how it promotes violence against women, and tomorrow night I’ll stand out here and protest with you.”
I know what you’re thinking: what a transparent ploy to get a cheap date on the fly. Yet I meant it too.
But she turned me down.
Christmas vacation, 1997. My teenage step-daughter invites me on a father-daughter date to see the film “Titanic,” which had gotten unfavorable reviews. I start bloviating about the state of contemporary film when she stops me in my tracks: “Jim! You can’t criticize it if you haven’t seen it!”
This is what Hamlet calls getting hoist on your own petard. We went to see the film.
• Jane Hale lives in Juneau with her partner and their two dogs.