Image and the Feminine Self

Over thirty years ago, from April 1-3, 1991, we held one of the largest and most successful conferences in North Central College’s history.  As head of the Visiting Lecturer/Cultural Events Committee and the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, I helped coordinate a conference committee of eleven other faculty and staff from Counseling, English, philosophy, computer science, sociology, music, and psychology.  Seven students, plus student groups from the American Marketing Association and Pre-Professional Programs also played a major role, as well as a dozen people from the community.

Subtitled “A Gender Studies Conference for Women and Men,” it tackled issues which have remained central to our struggles over gender roles and the family up to this moment, a fact which is at once gratifying and sad.  How far have we come, really?  Those issues were best embodied by our two featured speakers, Harvard’s Carol Gilligan, and Evergreen State’s Stephanie Coontz, authors of ground breaking works on gender psychology and gender sociology focusing on the nature of the family.  Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development explained how psychology’s largely male lens had persistently and systematically misunderstood women’s personal and moral growth.  “It has the charge of a revelation,” wrote a reviewer from Vogue magazine. “She flips old prejudices against women on their ears. She reframes qualities regarded as women’s weaknesses and shows them to be human strengths.”  That the beauty-celebrity-fashion mag paid so much attention testified to how much the book impacted the general public, and began the widespread discussion of reframing how we see the very definitions of what it means to be “a woman,” “a man,” “a human being.”  Her 7:30 p.m. featured speech on April 2nd was called “Joining the Resistance: Psychology, Politics, Girls, and Women,” and, though girls and women were of course central, the repercussions of her ideas can be seen in the growing efforts today of changing the way we raise boys so they become less destructive and self-destruction men.  The line I remember most was her saying, “When we listen to a person we need to ask, Who is speaking? In What Body? And what story are they telling about relationships.

Stephanie Coontz had written two ground-breaking books:  Women’s Work, Men’s Property: The Origins of Gender and Class, and The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families 1600-1900.  A year later, 1992, she would popularize many of her ideas in her widely-read, widely-regarded The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, with the oft-quoted line: “Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary.”  In her April 1st talk “Images of the American Family” she revealed how much current debates about the future of the family are often based on serious misconceptions about its past.  In The Social Origins of Private Life she had documented how the dominant family form, the “nuclear family,” grounded in close personal relationships, was also based on domestic consumption of mass-produced goods.  It had, as well, blinded us to other rich, alternative family forms, like Native American kin groups.  Her work remains central to debates about family life in America.  I was not really shocked, for example, when the Atlantic made David Brook’s piece “The Nuclear Family Was A Mistake” the cover story of its February 2020 issue.  The popular columnist’s summary heading was: “The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half century has been a catastrophe for many. It’s time to figure our better ways to live together.”

In my copy of The Social Origins of Private Life, Stephanie Coontz wrote, “Thanks for your incredible hospitality and please let me reciprocate soon.”  I’ve never taken her up on that, though getting to know her and Carol Gilligan better is one of my enduring memories.  As is this one.  A week or so before the conference I happened to rashly open a door in the building the conference would be held in, and found myself in a planning meeting of some of the conference committee members, all women.  I was shocked to have barged in and felt unwelcomed until Madeleine Van Hecke, from psychology, said, “Oh, it’s ok! Guzman’s an andro-male.”  I refused their hearty invitations to come in and sit down. I was at the wrong place, I said, which was true.  But to this day the andro-male description still shocks and embarrasses me a little.  I’m sure it was a compliment, wasn’t it?  My continued uncertainty shows how stuck I still am in the men-are-men and women-are-women mind set.

♦  Go to the lead post in my personal history of significant persons and conferences I helped bring to North Central College.

Here’s the conference schedule:

Posted in Social Change | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Red Wolves and Black Bears

This is part of a series on The Arts of the Essay, and also continues the Earth Day theme of  Thinking Globally, Acting Locally?”  The short review below was written for The Virginia Quarterly Review in the late 70’s (a copy of the VQR review template on which I wrote appears below).  Reading Red Wolves and Black Bears and writing this review perhaps began my fascination with one of America’s greatest essayists and naturalists, Edward Hoagland, whom I write a lot about in the Arts of the Essay series. ***


Edward Hoagland has been called the Thoreau of our time.  Like Thoreau’s writing, his often rambles, is allusive, is strewn with clumsy sentences (some deliberate, some not), and there is the occasional line like: “…the rhythm of walking is in the sights and one’s response as much as simply in how one steps.”  Hoagland is also an avid naturalist.  But while in Thoreau’s writing the past barely exists, Hoagland’s is shot through with nostalgia and with the jarring rub of past against present.

Hoagland sees in red wolves and black bears counterparts to the communal and solitary aspects of human nature.  But these animals are not part of human nature.  They are part of the dwindling natural world, and one of the major catastrophe’s of our time is that nature is being relentlessly wiped out by human nature.  Sesame Street‘s Big Bird, says Hoagland, is less bird-like than Bugs Bunny is rabbit-like, and even Bugs is less rabbit-like than either Br’er or Peter.  Thoreau found refreshing intensity, vibrant emotion, and comforting stability in the interplay of nature and human nature.  How do we find these things now?  In these nineteen fine essays—which range in subject from a naturalist’s wanderings and research, to writing, cartoon characters, sports, slavery, pets, divorce, and more—this is the major question.  Sometimes he finds answers, sometimes not.

***  See “A Low Water Man” and “Dogs and the Tug of Life,” two Hoagland essays from Red Wolves and Black Bears I’ve written about.  Also, go to this site’s list of Reviews.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally?

It’s just five days after Earth Day 2021, the 51st celebration of the event first held on April 22, 1970.  Founded by environmentalist Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson—whose many other works included protecting the Appalachian Trail and banning DDT—this year’s Day was, like almost everything else since March 2020, overshadowed by our Pandemic.  One of the words of the day is the awkward “politicizing.”  Wearing masks, for example, is just beginning to show some signs of not splitting along Republican/Democrat lines, a split which prompted one person to say, “This is as silly as politicizing toilet paper.”  But the silliness continues, and reaches into way too many areas of our life.

Earth Day, too, has suffered increasing politicizing, and we’re caught more than ever between so-called Climate Alarmists and Climate Deniers.  I used to think that 97% of scientists believed in climate change, but I’m assured by friends I trust that that’s not so, a view espoused by many articles such as Forbes’ “’97% Of Climate Scientists Agree’ Is 100% Wrong,” a 2015 opinion article by Alex Epstein.  “If you look at the literature,” writes Epstein,

“the specific meaning of the 97% claim is: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that there is a global warming trend and that human beings are the main cause–that is, that we are over 50% responsible. The warming is a whopping 0.8 degrees over the past 150 years, a warming that has tapered off to essentially nothing in the last decade and a half.”

Of course, Alex Epstein is founder of the Center for Industrial Progress and author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, so I’m right away suspicious.  First of all, 0.8 degrees is fairly “whopping” overall, and according to NOAA, large-scale research, “Basically…confirms what climate scientists have said all along: natural variability…may cause the rate of warming to change from one decade to the next, but global warming is still underway.”  NASA’s Global Climate Change website also confirms a steady temperature increase apart from natural variability. Epstein argues in part that it’s immoral to attempt banning fossil fuels because billions of livelihoods depend on it.  It’s an argument similar to most economic arguments, like ones about growing carbon in the air only affecting wage growth a few percentage points, if at all—so greenhouse gases can’t be that important.  For me Al Gore’s illustration in An Inconvenient Truth resounds more powerfully.  He used a graphic of a scale: on one side was a pile of money, on the other the earth itself.  We’ll continue to have income growth burning fossil fuels but in what world will we be spending that money?  And on what: more and more and more on mitigating an increasingly unstable environment?

The back and forth seems endless, and I hope a total paralysis won’t result.  At this moment, I’m thrown back 30 years to what seems a more innocent, less politicized time.  In April 1991 I helped put on a conference at North Central College.  We had started holding full-scale conferences in 1989, and earlier that month (April 1-3) had one of our biggest, Image and the Feminine Self, featuring the important writers Carol Gilligan and Stephanie Coontz.  “That’s a lot of pressure. I hope my conference goes half as well,” said our Dean of the Faculty Jerry Berberet, an environmentalist who wanted to get in on our conferencing scene.  Thinking Globally, Acting Locally would occur only two weeks later (April 17-19), and it did go well, with a truly national/global cast of presenters:  Dr. Arthur Sacks (Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) speaking on “Environmentalism and Perestroika in the Soviet Union”; Dr. John Baldwin (Univ. of Oregon) on “Global Environmental Threats: Perspectives from China, Japan, and the Persian Gulf; Dr. Craig Davis (Ohio State) on “Reaching Those in Power: Environmental Degradation as a Threat to National Security”; Dr. Tim Wood (Wright State) on “The Fate of the Forests: Perspectives on Global Deforestation”; Dr. Desh Bandhu (New Delhi) on “Environmental Issues in India”; and Dr. Alan Schwartz (St. Lawrence Univ.) on “The Environment and the Border: The U.S. and Canada.” There were workshops and even a “Harmonium” where people shared their thoughts in poetry, song, and drama.

The opening lines of the brochure read: “The Earth faces ominous environmental threats—global warming, deforestation, toxic wastes, the recent ravages of the Gulf War.  What the cumulative effects of such threats?…What do Earth’s people need to do to sustain human society in the future? What cab this college and the community around it do to fulfill Rene Dubois’ admonition for the first Earth Day in 1970 to ‘Think globally, Act locally.’”

These days it seems we’re all out of whack.  We’re thinking just locally—meaning our “local” party affiliation vs. yours, our local problems vs. yours, our local set of facts vs. yours, our corner of the globe vs. the globe as a whole.  As many have said, The earth is going to survive all we throw at it.  It’s going to last far, far longer than humans will.

♦  Go to the lead post in my personal history of significant persons and conferences I helped bring to North Central College.

Posted in Reviews & Commentary | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment