On the last day of my Queer Theories class at Smith College?a class I took because Gail Rubin was on the syllabus, and because it's such an anomaly, even at an all-women's college, to study sexuality?we filled out course evaluation forms and then sat in a circle discussing what we'd learned. The professor?an hilarious hardcore dominatrix of a postgrad student, an instructor unlike any other I'd had at Smith?wanted us to give an example of some paradigm or stereotype that the class had exploded or recast; something that had changed for us, ideologically, during the class.
What had we learned? What surprised us? The students had the same kinds of answers: "It made me realize that 'queer' doesn't just mean homosexual"/"I now see the importance of class structure"/"It forced me to deconstruct arguments," etc. But my teacher's contribution was the most interesting. She was surprised by our self-consciousness. She was surprised that we all felt like we had to belong to a group in order to discuss it?lesbians, BDSM players, transsexuals, people of color, whatever. She was surprised that we were so timid, actually, and that we took things so personally.
Well, she's young. And she's new at Smith. She won't be surprised after another year. We take everything personally.
I love Smith. It's my senior year, and I'm into it. I live in a beautiful house (there are no "dorms" at Smith, just huge old houses) in a room with a cross breeze and flannel sheets, two doors down from my best friend. The dining hall is in the house, so I can go downstairs and get tea whenever I want. I love riding my bike around on tree-lined streets; I love being 21 in Northampton, MA, an absurd town full of twentysomething junkies, New York emigres and candlelight vigilers, a town where my fake ID never worked and last call comes at a scandalously early 12:30. I love having my car here, so that I can escape if I have to.
But it's a weird place, Smith is, both socially and politically, with a conservative curriculum and often reactionary left-wing students. The women here are, as you'd expect, extremely concerned with identity politics. They're not exactly sex-positive, yet during COW, or "Coming-Out Week"?Smith's week of festivities for maybe-lesbians?you can't walk five steps without messing up someone's chalking of female genitalia. I used to hate these kinds of contradictions. Now I just think they're funny.
My Queer Theories professor was right, though, about the students' need to feel included in a group. I was silent in Queer Theories?for weeks?because I'm not a lesbian. I was terrified of revealing some ingrained homophobia on my part, and even of outing myself as straight. I didn't mention my heterosexuality until the second-to-last day of class, when I talked about visiting a strip club in Louisville with my then-fiance. I was almost embarrassed to be engaged to a man.
Heterosexual privilege and white privilege are big issues here. A huge majority of Smith women are white, and a bunch of white liberal students naturally means a bunch of white-bashing. Everything you do or say here seems to be prefaced with a little identity marker. We might as well have a station set up during Orientation Week at which entering first-year women can type in different identity taglines. We'd wear them like badges around campus, and then no one would have to begin their arguments with "As an African-American lesbian" or "As a Southeastern white trustfunder" or "Well, I'm from L.A., so I've found that?" People would just read your badges, realize they were talking to a transgendered Ethiopian or a Stuyvesant grad from Brighton Beach and take that into account. It would save time.
In fact, Smith's is the most politically correct campus in the country, at least according to some poll I remember reading a few years ago, for what that's worth. I wouldn't question that in the least. I've been schooled in the evils of The Man during my time here. I don't doubt the existence of The Man, but too many classroom and campus arguments at Smith end with a knowing nod and "It's The Man, you know." Seriously. I've thought about e-mailing professors at Zero Hour?when it's midnight and I've completed only five pages' worth of a 10-page essay due the next day?with something like the following: "Hey, I was just printing my paper for Lit. Theory, but The Man came in and ripped it up a minute ago, laughing maniacally about thwarting another female mind in action. You know how it is. Sorry."
For various reasons I freaked out during my first year at Smith. I left and came to New York City for a while, where I took classes at NYU. I didn't look back?until this summer, when I decided to return for my senior year. I think of my two years away from Smith as an extended junior year abroad, or (and this is more realistic) as the action of a rebellious teenager who has to leave home before she can appreciate it.
Sophia Smith, a New England feminist with a generous inheritance, founded Smith College in 1871. We've had some famous graduates: a batch of Republican first ladies (Bush, Reagan) and the two big second-wave feminists of this century (Friedan, Steinem). Everyone's favorite graduate, however, is Sylvia Plath. Stories abound about her time in Lawrence House?and although I'm not a big fan of Plath's poetry, I have to admit to first wanting to come to Smith when, at the age of 14, I'd just read her Letters Home.
When I looked at colleges, I didn't really think about what the phrase "all-women's college" meant. I believed the literature Smith sent me: it would be a stimulating academic environment where I would bond with women and have an Amherst College boyfriend. It's almost like a coed school on weekends! the propaganda said. I had it all planned, my college life. It would be the real life I'd been waiting for while biding my time in my racist, homophobic Southern public high school.
But it never happened. I hated Smith that first year. Probably most of my problems with Smith were manifestations of my own issues. I grew up in a small, white-flight county in Kentucky; I was in a strange, obsessive relationship with a man back home; I thought I was open-minded and world-weary because my father was secretly gay and died of AIDS (so what did I possibly have to learn? I naively thought); I had stupidly just read This Side of Paradise, which, silly as it sounds, had something to do with my post-high-school depression.
But it was also Smith itself?mainly, the all-women factor. Being around women only, all the time, provoked a strange reaction: I started to hate them. I forgot what it was like to talk to boys. I went to parties and messed around with guys I didn't know because I missed the whole male gender. I wanted boys, boyfriends and boy friends. I felt ashamed talking about my guy friends back in Kentucky, and when everyone I knew began coming out, I felt like the uncool straight girl, the unenlightened one who still wanted boy-girl sex. I remember sitting outside the dining hall one afternoon and realizing that I was the only girl in a circle of 10 who had shaved legs; I tucked them underneath me and hoped no one would notice my cosmetic concession to the patriarchy. Instead of being amazed at the intelligence of my classmates, suddenly all the women around me appeared stupid and boring. I felt a strange urge to change my political affiliation to Republican and start listening to Rush Limbaugh. That's when I knew I had to leave.
And not only had I changed by the time I returned to Northampton this September, but I think Smith had changed. It seemed chiller, almost. The women seemed to be more okay with sex?all kinds?and less inclined to believe that wearing makeup made you an automatic tool of the patriarchy. Maybe the whole politically doctrinaire thing was trickling out with the 90s. I still get strange looks in class when I defend pornography and sex workers; I just don't take it as personally.
"Celebrating sexual diversity" isn't just a nice phrase, either; we have a night set aside for it. During the second week in November there's an event called Celebration of Sisterhood, a commemoration of a homophobic incident on campus that occurred a decade ago. The night is supposed to celebrate women's sexuality in all its forms, but the skits and song and dance routines are mainly about "Livin' La Vida Lesbo"?I'm not joking, there was some drag king dressed up as Ricky Martin, and he was great?and the perils of Evil Frat Boys. Every other skit is a girl-meets-girl story, in which Girl A attempts to get Evil Frat Boy to stop bothering her; Girl B kicks Evil Frat Boy out of the party and simultaneously saves and gets Girl A.
There's a strange consensus, I guess, that this is how it is here. No one piped up in defense of their Evil Frat Boy brother or boyfriend. We knew to cheer when the girls started making out onstage, and to boo the EFBs attempting to seduce the girls into the Gomorrah that, at Smith, heterosexuality can represent for some. I watched and cheered, loving it, knowing I would never be in an environment like this again.