This is a not going to be a carefully crafted articulation about how I am a feminist. I'm shooting from the hip a little bit, letting the thoughts jumble around as I think them. Caveats, etc.
I've never been not-a-feminist. Women have found a place in our society that they once were not able to have (is there still a way to go? yes; but it is not like it used to be). In that sense, we are all not-not-a-feminist.
Academically, though, the particular critical discourse of feminism is something I always admired but never took on in my own scholarly identity. Until today. I think my thoughts on this have been slowly percolating over the past weeks, maybe months, maybe even years. Maybe it began the day I became a mother, conceiving my first child seven years ago, carrying babies in my womb and nursing them, forcing me to be aware of my female body in ways I had never before experienced, stretching my physical capabilities more than I could've ever imagined. Becoming a mother also meant that I had to reconsider my place in the academy. I stepped out of it for awhile. But during that time, I eagerly sought out the stories of how other women negotiated their places as mothers and academics. I read and reread Mama, PhD. I cried.
In one of the essays from that book, one of the women made a comment, "I am not a disembodied head." As a mother, of course, all the responsibilities for my kids are always present in my mind. My attention is forever divided. But motherhood changed me on a deeper emotional level. I can't watch or listen to certain sensitive things. Schubert's Erlkönig, Berg's Wozzeck, and, are you kidding me?! Kindertotenlieder!? I don't think so. As very specific, even obvious, examples, all of these pieces have to do with children and death, and I simply cannot go there emotionally. Even beyond this particular theme, I will say that my emotional-somatic (is that a word?) barometer is forever altered.
After a six year hiatus, I'm back in the academy, an embodied head. Not only that, as the mother of a deaf child, who has opened up so many avenues of thought for me. I wanted to write about music and deafness and Deaf culture, and I discovered a newish field in the humanities that examines how disabilities in a cultural sense, namely disability studies. The defining characteristic of this culture of disability is a bodily difference, a way of forcing the person with the disability to position her physical self in a way that is different from the majority world around her. She is the other, the abled larger culture is the normal. And what makes her Other is her body. (In fact, often when I read disability studies stuff, I think, "yes, that's what it's like to be pregnant!")
With the realities of my own embodied head and my experience of thinking about deafness and music fresh in my head, I've started a graduate program again, with its familiar rituals of seminars, research, and teaching. In short, I do a lot of reading. And I struggle with it sometimes. I struggle to maintain focus through the arguments. I realize that some of this comes with practice, with learning more. Part of this may also be just me and how I need to process information. As the semester has progressed, I've found a reading style that works for me: I write with a pen on paper. It helps me to outline arguments and maintain focus. Recently, though, I was reading an article with content far outside my comfort zone, and I realized that I wasn't writing notes yet I was focused and engaged. Suddenly, I had the thought to wonder if the author was a woman. She was. This happened again, a few times, actually, where I could follow a female scholar's argument with greater facility than a male scholar's--not that there was anything distinctively feminist in their content, either.
I haven't conducted a scientific inquiry into this. Just a notable intuition, which prods my thought that most of modern scholarly discourse is a male way of writing and arguing. In my quest to find my voice, I have often felt that I was trying to fit my arguments into a shoe that didn't quite fit. I believe that there are stronger ways of writing history than others. Having historical evidence, taking into account many different sources, and interpreting them as honestly as possible with respect to the variety of appropriate contexts are key parts of my work as a historian, and as a musicologist, I do consider myself historian. I would never present a historical argument without evidence, but I think there is the fingerprint of my female identity in my writing, in how I fashion an argument, in how I create my discursive style.
I think the lines between scholar and scholarship can be somewhat blurred. We are not disembodied heads. What does it mean for me to be physically present in my scholarship? Even in something as so "unsexy" as talking about the gathering structure of a fifteenth century manuscript?
Academic feminism means a lot of things: advocacy, power relationships, the semiotics of gender. While I admire and respect those things, I never felt connected to those agendas, which is why I never took on the label "feminist" wholeheartedly. I didn't want to be restricted by a particular academically-constructed critical identity.
What changed for me today, though, was realizing that a woman's scholarly discourse is different from a man's, in ways I don't even know how to begin to explain, but has to do with the fact that the scholar is present in his or her scholarship, that acknowledges the personhood of the author inasmuch as the content of the scholarly work.
Part of this, I'm sure, is socially constructed, but part of this is because men and women are different. Recognizing that difference is okay; these differences can coexist with eachother and enrich eachother. Figuring out how to articulate these differences will probably take a long time. But I can take the label "feminist" and put it on today, because I am not a disembodied head. Maybe what I do won't look different from what I've been doing at first glance, but maybe I'll feel a freedom in my quest to find my distinctive voice. I think what makes me a feminist is that my female body and mind are a perspective with which I view all things and will be present, to some degree, in all aspects of my work.