Kalikow Acceptance Speech
When I got Stephanie’s email that told me that I was this year’s recipient of the Theo Kalikow award, my immediate thought was that I don’t deserve it, that the President’s Commission on the Status of Women doesn’t understand that I’m not often an activist anymore, that I feel as though I’m not a visible face of feminism. There are lots of reasons that this was my first thought, not least of which is probably my own sense of inadequacy. But I think the main reason has to do with the kind of work that I’ve been doing in recent years.
I started teaching at PSU in 1998 so I’m pretty sure that officially makes me a mid-career academic. As a result, I spend a lot of time and mental energy on things like strategic plans and budgets and all of that other bureaucratic work that comes with being in the middle of a career. In fact, I’ve started to think of myself as a “middle-management” feminist because I spend so much time working on policies and processing paperwork, rather than working the front lines of the feminist struggle.
When I was younger, I did work those front lines. I worked at a domestic violence organization, where I dealt daily with women and children who had had fists and other weapons used against them. And I escorted women into abortion clinics that had been threatened with gun violence and fire bombs. When I did this kind of work, it was easy for me to understand the point. Those front lines are dangerous places where the threat is visible and visceral and standing against that threat marked me as an “activist.”
The front line attacks haven’t stopped. Fists and bullets and bombs are still used to undermine our progress and we still need front line feminist responses. But those who oppose recognizing women as full human beings are also attacking at the middle management level. They write legislation to make it shameful and even impossible to obtain reproductive health services. They use elected officials to slash the budgets of domestic and sexual violence organizations. They use paperwork as a weapon. And so fighting back, with strategic plans and budgets and legislation of our own, fighting back with these middle management tools, is necessary and useful.
Although I sometimes forget it, my service activities are my attempts to make the society I actually live in match the society I want to live in, a society where women have the same rights and opportunities as men. Having to write this speech helped me to remember that. What I realized is that the work that I do now, the middle management type of work that many of us in academia do, is important. It is, in fact, activist work in which we are trying to create that imagined society, one piece of paper at a time.
Of course, one person can’t create the ideal society all by herself. I am so thankful for the amazing colleagues who share a vision of that society with me. I can’t possibly mention everyone on this campus with whom I have shared significant paperwork moments. But there are a few who stand out, mainly because they are also my dearest friends: Ann McClellan, Robin DeRosa, Liz Ahl, Pat Cantor and Mary Cornish—smart, funny, committed women whose presence in my life helps to keep my existential angst at bay.
The first thing I heard this morning, before I even opened my eyes for the day, was that Adrienne Rich had died. If you don’t already know her poems and her essays, I suggest you go out right now and read some. Her work has been important and inspirational to me at some very difficult times in my life. So I want to end by reading the last stanza of her poem called Dreams Before Waking.
What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each other’s despair into hope? —
You yourself must change it. —
what would it feel like to know
your country was changing? —
You yourself must change it. —
Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange
what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?
Thank you to the President’s Commission on the Status of Women for bringing us all together today to energize each other to continue the battle, both on the front lines and in middle management.