Janet Braun-Reinitz (WS 1973)

“The widening of woman’s sphere is to improve her lot.  Let us do it, and if the world scoff, let it scoff – if it sneer, let it sneer….”
Lucy Stone, 1855

Arriving in Geneva in 1968, I brought with me a commitment to feminism and activism, an
uncompleted B.A., the insulting sobriquet “faculty wife” and my New York City attitude. Two years later I enrolled at William Smith as a part-time student, majoring in Studio Art and Women’s Studies.  Women’s Studies?  There was no such thing!  But with the help and encouragement of Professor Bob Huff I created an independent study major that met all the requirements (except the swimming test, but that is another story). Of course, being so close to Seneca Falls was an added inspiration – “Resolved: That woman is man’s equal… and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.” (The First Woman’s Rights Convention, Seneca Falls, 1848)

Feminism in those days was a very different enterprise than it is today, often reviled, extremely in-your-face and always visible — for contemporary comparisons see Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter.  I vividly remember the day a group of us had an appointment with the college president to request/demand that he hire someone to teach women’s history, prepared to sit-in if he did not agree. He did.  Women’s Studies was definitely on the move and the year after I graduated in 1973, there was a major, though not yet a department. It is easy to forget the energy and force of the movement in the 1970’s, even though it has been well documented.  “There is something contagious about demanding freedom, especially where women, who comprise the oldest oppressed group on the face of the planet, are concerned .” (Robin Mogan, Sisterhood Is Powerful, , 1970).

I am still a committed feminist and activist but am saddened by the “politeness” of the current movement – sign a petition, make a contribution, don’t be confrontational, don’t speak out to loudly, and don’t actually use the word “feminism”.  You do not have to risk anything. However, the very existence of Women’s Studies as an accepted major, the opportunity to take a course that fits within another major is a perhaps immeasurable contribution. To entwine two clichés, knowledge is power and sisterhood is powerful.

Janet Braun-Reinitz
Class of 1973

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Julia Hoyle (WS 2011)

You ask how I use my Women’s Studies degree/feminism in my daily life. I am a winemaker in the Finger Lakes, which is a job I adore. The catch is the industry is dominated by white men and I have run into a few people (men and women!) who believe it should stay that way. I was asked at a job interview with Heron Hill Winery a couple of years ago if I intended to travel and work abroad (common for young winemakers). When I responded “yes,” the owner then asked me who would take care of the house while I was gone. He was not making a joke. I have also had my application intentionally ignored because my spouse is also a winemaker. I sincerely doubt that his application would have been ignored if our roles were reversed. Recently, I had the Wine Advocate’s Finger Lakes reviewer, Mark Squires, refer to me as an “old wine slut” in an attempt to make a joke. Needless to say, it did not go over well.

 

Another reality of the wine industry is that it often is discriminatory, intentionally or not, against POC. The most complicated relationship is with migrant labor needed to harvest grapes and work in vineyards. I have many times called out grape farmers, and others in the industry, for how they talk about/interact with this marginalized group. Using the language barrier to skirt issues at work is relatively common in the farming industry. I have chosen my employer not only for how they treat women in their company, but for how they treat all Sheldrake Point employees. We use the government H2A program to hire our migrant workers, which does a lot to protect them from employer abuse. Occasionally a coworker says something that is inappropriate, although not said to be malicious. I work for a company where those statements, or actions, are not overlooked. We have the sometimes awkward or hard conversations necessary, so as to avoid repetition of whatever the offensive behavior was.

 

As a feminist, and former William Smith Women’s Studies student, I strive to bring equality to my workplace. I deeply believe that everyone deserves respect. I also fall into ecofeminism when I consider my work with the Earth. Without grapes I have no job. The Earth is also something deserves respect. Whether I am vocally opposing LPG storage, fracking, or pesticide sprays, I want to protect our Mother and local water systems.

Becky Perkins (WS 2011)

Since graduating from HWS, feminism has remained central to my way of life. Currently I work for a Russian women’s network that supports women living with or affected by HIV, TB, and hepatitis. I ponder and try to find solutions for the spectrum of challenges that women face, particularly when the factors of marginalization are compounded such HIV+ drug using sex workers.

 Last year I coordinated our participation in the campaign ‘16 Days Against Gender-Based Violence’. Our mission was to raise awareness of how HIV and violence are interrelated. Although saddening to see how little the majority of people know about these issues, we succeeded in having some important discussions with members of the community.

 I remember taking ‘Feminism and Philosophy’ during my sophomore year at HWS. It was a time when I was really starting to define my thoughts, yet at the same time, questioning everything. I recall being conflicted about my standpoint on sex work. In my work now, many of my colleagues have been involved in sex work, and I see clearly that banning sex work and criminalizing sex workers neither eliminates the demand for sex nor provides options for the individuals who are working in the industry.

 Bodily autonomy and control over oneself has always been my major focus in women’s studies. If women were able to really inhabit their physical body and space and be fully in charge of what, where, and how they experience life, I feel as though much of women’s oppression would cease to exist. As a student I was very involved in activism, especially for sexual and reproductive rights. The whole ‘shutting down Planned Parenthood’ scandal broke out my senior year and I went to lobby and rallies for our right to choose. It’s baffling to me that we are still fighting for our bodily integrity in many countries.

 Currently I’m conducting a project on employment and employability of stigmatized women, focusing on women who were imprisoned, women who use/have used drugs, and sex workers. While there have been recent efforts to support women’s participation in the economy, too often the most marginalized fall through the cracks and remain particularly vulnerable.

 I feel like I’m in a constant state of bipolarity in relation to women’s rights worldwide. One story uplifts me, filling me with optimism and inspiration, and the next frustrates and discourages me. What is more and more evident is that these systemic problems need uprooting solutions, not mere bandaids lacking coordination. Unfortunately organizations working with the support of the government and global institutions are incapable of creating the societal shifts that are needed to truly combat such deeply ingrained issues as rape culture, discriminatory behaviour, and inequality. Although recent efforts from the UN and other international organizations show some promise in setting the tone to advocate for women’s rights, we have yet to see a united approach, and, simultaneously, backlash persists. I really hope that the internet proves to have the power to annihilate the patriarchal system worldwide.

Becky Perkins

WS ‘11

Liz Dedrick (WS 2002)

It’s 9:45 p.m. as I sit down to write this.  I just finished the dishes and the minimal house-tidying required on a daily basis to keep the house from being a total disaster.  And that followed an 8-hour work day as a union attorney, trip to the grocery store, dinner prep while talking a recently terminated employee through his settlement options by phone, retrieval of two loveably mercurial 2-year olds from daycare, and performance of our usual nighttime routine.  I had planned to exercise today; that didn’t happen.

Is this the future I imagined for myself in 2002 as a William Smith grad?  Or in 2004 after completing my Master’s degree in Women’s Studies?  To the extent that the younger version of myself hoped and imagined that I could do it all, I think this is what I anticipated for my future life.  But I don’t think the idealized version I fantasized then included the reality that I would average just 4-6 hours of interrupted sleep a night in order to be able to do it all.  And I think it’s unlikely that the future I projected then involved me doing 80% of the domestic work of keeping a two-parent household running – from laundry and lawn mowing, to bills, birthday cards and bike maintenance, and everything in between.  One of the characteristics that most attracted me to my husband in the early days of our relationship was his fairly strong set of feminist sensibilities.  But he is currently a junior associate in a law firm and he commonly works 80-100 hours a week.  So that’s just how the chips are falling at this point in time.

And so where does feminism fit into all of this?  It fits in the decisions I make as a parent: in replacing the word “firefighter” for “fireman” in my kids’ favorite Curious George book; in buying frilly tutus for both my kids because my son sometimes enjoys them as much as my daughter; in sharing the stories of Cesar Chavez and Wangari Maathai with my kids; and in trying not to visibly cringe when my daughter layers herself in pink clothes from head-to-toe.  It fits in the way that I believe I am able to provide more nuanced, sensitive, and zealous advocacy to the employee who lost her job because the domestic violence she faced at home made it impossible for her to show up for work.  It fits in the way that I somewhat contritely allow my husband to feel guilty for not doing more around the house.  And it fits in the way that it constantly forces me to examine and question my role in this world from my professional choices, to my privileges, to the delicate balances of my personal life.  It’s certainly not the activist version of feminism I embraced in my 20’s.  Instead it’s the essential undercurrent of how I live my day-to-day life.  It doesn’t feel like enough.  But I accept that it’s what I can do for now.

-Liz Dedrick