October 29, 2001

Women Studies Professor Seeks Revenge at Cornell

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“I’m twelve years old and I’ve become a feminist!”

So begins “Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor,” a one-woman play created and performed by Prof. Bonnie Morris, women’s studies, of George Washington University. Morris brought her play to Cornell last Friday, performing in Goldwin Smith Hall’s Kaufmann Auditorium at 7 p.m. Approximately 40 people attended the play.

According to the program, “Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor” recounts “true stories from the trenches of academia.” A personal memoir, the play details Prof. Morris’ experiences as a women’s studies professor and student, providing a clue about what it is like to pursue a career that is often looked down upon, ridiculed, subjected to stereotypes and even condemned Morris has been presenting “Revenge” since she created it in 1993 out of anecdotal material. She has performed it in several countries — Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Iceland and India — and in many different languages.

She sees herself as a “good diplomat” for both women’s studies and “gayland,” as she calls it.

“I don’t fit people’s stereotype of an angry, axe-yielding feminist. I’m smiley and friendly. I try to use that to my advantage, to change people’s opinions of what feminism is,” Morris said.

The play begins in 1973. “I was a baby feminist,” she declares. “I would say, ‘I’ve got the power.’ And I did have the power. I had the power of language.”

Prof. Morris takes the audience through her childhood experiences — her “radical” Quaker school “where the girls build solar showers and the boys take modern dance,” the women’s studies courses she took in middle school, the deep personal connection she felt to the women’s movement — into her college years, when she discovered her calling.

“I always thought I would be a writer,” she explained, “but when I was in college I decided to get a doctorate in women’s studies.”

Proud of her decision and excited about her future, Morris “told everybody” she could about her intentions. It was then that she became acquainted with what are now painfully familiar negative attitudes toward women’s studies.

“I started to get a negative vibe — and it lasted throughout six years of graduate school,” she said. “I heard things like, ‘You’re working on a Ph.D. in what? Women’s history — is that a field? I didn’t know ya could major in women’s lib stuff. You’ll never get a job. Think you’ll ever earn any money with that?’ And my favorite: ‘You’ll have to go on welfare and be a drain on society’ — all of this upon a handshake.”

Eventually, Morris determined that her inquirers were not really “concerned” about her well being, as they claimed to be, but rather were “flabbergasted that I was doing exactly what I wanted to do instead of choosing a conventionally feminine career.”

From there, Morris takes her audience through several anecdotes about her seminary teaching experiences. She recounts her surprise at the ignorance of her first students, whose teacher evaluations consisted of such demands as “Shave your legs” and “It is completely unprofessional of you to discuss the politics of the female orgasm in class.”

One student, “Ralph,” complained that Morris discusses “too much women’s history” in her U.S. history class. In response, Morris pulls out the class syllabus and points out: “We meet as a class 30 times this semester. I give a total of three lectures on women in U.S. history. That means we spend ten percent of our class time talking about the experiences and accomplishments of 52 percent of the population in the U.S. And this is too much?”

This encounter is typical of the attitudes Morris confronts not only among students, but among colleagues and higher-ups as well. She describes the difficulties she faced in getting hired at a small college in Illinois, where she was interrogated by 21 men for three days. When she finally spoke with a female professor, the woman broke down in front of Morris, pleading with her to “please come here; we need you!”

Morris recounted the loneliness and isolation she felt as a women’s history professor at St. Lawrence University. “I was the only one of everything I was — a Jew, a women’s studies professor, a lesbian. I was a walking multicultural experience for the kids there,” she said.

In another scene, Morris recalls a women’s basketball game at George Washington University in 1994.

“President Clinton came to see a men’s basketball game with Chelsea,” Morris said. “At half-time, he made himself available to everyone. Well, I walked up to him and said that he should stay for the next game and support the women’s team. He did — and became the first president to call and congratulate a women’s basketball team of the NCAA. I like to think I had something to do with that.

“When the president goes and sits back down, that’s as good as it gets. That’s when I knew — I’ve got the power,” she said.

If her play is any indication, that power comes at a price. But Morris doesn’t seem to mind paying.

“Fact is,” she said, “most women’s studies professors spend more time defending our choice of research on women’s lives than articulating what we have learned through our research. When our students, administrators, faculty colleagues and friends stop asking why we need women’s studies and get on with the work of learning from women, I’ll love my job even more than I do now.”

Archived article by Erica Gilbert-Levin