Sarah Marcus on Feminism, Publishing, and Teaching Activism

The following is an interview with Sarah Marcus, author of BACKCOUNTRY, feminist, past StS poetry reader, regular StSguest blogger, teacher, and VIDA Count intern.

Sheila: Why is feminism important to you? What does it mean to you?

Sarah: Feminism is responsibility. I believe that I am responsible for being an effective advocate. Like Steinem, I think that a “feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” Being a feminist means subverting an accepted culture of silence. As such, feminism is vital to creating civic-minded, educated humans and consumers. I spend a great deal of time thinking about ways to win hearts and minds. I lesson plan and write and start conversations and show my face in my community. I support other feminists— I think we have a duty to be role models for young women and men. I am painfully aware of my words and actions and how they impact those around me. I am overwhelmed by the cultural backlash to feminism that surrounds us on a daily basis: reality television, violent and degrading (always present) pornography, the Republican’s war on reproductive freedom, etc. It is important for me to remember that I am (we are) the example. People are always watching us. We are educators and guides, and being a feminist means having integrity. It means being in healthy relationships. It means modeling how to be with a respectful partner. Having self worth and refusing to wallow in self-pity. It means not looking in that bathroom mirror, hallway mirror, car window, etc. and saying, “I look disgusting,” because I never know who’s watching me. A student? A child? A friend?  It means not judging someone’s clothing or lack thereof. Today, I am accountable for giving what I never had.

Being a feminist in today’s academic culture means publishing my students, teaching equality in the classroom, and talking about gender identity and sexual violence even when it’s uncomfortable—even when no one wants me to have the conversation. During college I was a sexual assault/rape crisis counselor and victim advocate for Butler County, Ohio. Being a feminist means positively impacting our communities. Gloria Steinem has always been my hero because she represents fearlessness. She revolutionized the presentation of our emotional lives. She represented the uninhibited. She was apt to unwomanly assertion, passion, and individualism. Through her example and the example of so many others, (Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter, Eve Ensler, Betty Friedan, Susan Brownmiller) I learned that being brave and strong doesn’t mean that you don’t have a difficult time or make mistakes, but that you walk through them with dignity and grace. I learned to embrace femininity. I think that forgiveness (true forgiveness conquers the dutiful martyr) is principally feminine.

Today, I feel this communal attitude that we are only allowed to publicly call ourselves feminists within certain limits. We are not supposed to be aggressive or appear angry. We should know how to communicate and operate and advocate for change within the realm of our context—within what the current patriarchal hierarchy has deemed acceptable—what they feel comfortable with. This model feels submissive and repressed and ironic to me. Sexual and angry—we are threatening; we are dangerous. I think that our discipline is self enforced and kept in check by society’s incessant scrutiny.

I do not pretend to speak for or represent an entire movement or even a small part of a movement. I’m not sure that I would even feel comfortable aligning myself with a particular wave of feminism. Although, I do have a soft spot for second wave hardliners… I am a feminist operating within a tradition of trailblazers. I am also a feminist who loves and appreciates chivalry (I have received unfortunate, collective gasps for this statement). I hate that some people would like to kick me out of the club for this. Yes, please open my car door and do kind things. I do not expect this, but I certainly cherish it. I respect it. It’s not because I don’t know how to open my own door. It’s not because I need a man (or anyone else) to help me. I value the concept because it’s caring, because it epitomizes the idea that we should be of maximum service to our fellows. It was a beautiful day in my life when I realized that I was finally becoming the kind of man that I was told I should marry (Steinem’s description of self-actualization).