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To Portland State University Women’s Studies Governing Board re Proposed Name Change

Date: January 24, 2010

January 23, 2010

PSU Women’s Studies Governing Board members,

I am writing you as a former student, instructor, and frequent guest lecturer of Women’s Studies Program at Portland State University regarding the public discussion I attended this past Thursday about the potential change of the Department name.

At the public meeting last Thursday, it became clear from early on that there were two main concerns/interests that the group was trying to balance: first, there was a strong sense among some outspoken participants that the word “women” should remain, in order to honour the Department’s legacy and to resist erasure of women in the rest of academia; second, there was an even stronger feeling among others that the name should be expanded to include gender and sexuality, in order to more fully represent the content of the program as well as to appeal to a broader audience. Both groups quickly acknowledged each other’s arguments, which made the conjuncture, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, a popular alternative.

And then, several women of colour brought up a concern that highly abstract terms like “gender and sexuality studies” alienate members of their families and communities, making it more difficult to recruit and retain women of colour within our program. I felt that their concerns were very relevant and valid, but I did not hear any other people acknowledge them or to offer compromises to address them. I requested a five-minute caucus time for the women of colour in the group because I felt that the “public” in this public meeting ignored and dismissed the real concerns of women of colour who spoke up, and I wanted to hear them better and to strategies how women of colour can have real impact in the process.

The voting took place immediately after the caucus time, and “Women’s, Gender and Sexualities Studies” was the most popular name, as I had expected. It received many more votes than the second choice, which was to retain “Women’s Studies.” I do understand that there is a need to change the name if only to reflect the presence of sexualities studies curriculum, and suspect that many people expect the Governing Board to go along with the popular will. But given the fact that the split between WGS and “Women’s Studies” went almost along the racial line, with most people in the white majority preferring WGS and most women of colour preferring “Women’s Studies,” I caution against the use of simple majority rule.

At the same time, I do not expect the Governing Board to throw out the most popular choice entirely, along with two years of internal discussions, simply because most women of colour voted against the change. I suggest that the Governing Board adopt the new name: Department of Women’s Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies. This is longer than even the longest proposal that was on the table this past Thursday, but it is the natural compromise between the two top picks from the community, and has the advantages of both: it is inclusive of scholarly explorations into gender and sexuality issues outside of the traditional “women’s studies” framework, while at the same time allowing people to continue to refer to the program casually as “Department of Women’s Studies” as a shorthand.

To be honest, I did not walk into the meeting thinking that I would be sympathetic to the argument for status quo. I am very excited about the expansion of the program into areas of gender, sexuality, and queer theory, and I would have picked something more along the line of WGS if I were to decide it by myself. But after hearing voices of other women of colour, and seeing how the process failed to include and address their concerns, I felt that it was more important for me to stand in solidarity with them than to promote the name that I personally like most. I urge members of the Governing Board to take their/our concerns seriously, and come up with a solution that satisfies their/our needs, possibly but not necessarily along the line of my suggestion.

Sincerely,

Emi Koyama

Racist Feminism at the National Women’s Studies Association

Date: June 28, 2008

In March, I was invited to speak at the “tribute panel” dedicated to Black feminist thought, especially the work and life of Audre Lorde during the National Women’s Studies Association. I felt honored, and more than slightly intimidated, to be selected to address the importance of Audre Lorde’s work in my own life as well as in the feminist movement at large. Other panelists were Kaila Adia Story (University of Louisville) and Melinda L. de Jesus (California College of the Arts).

It was during my second year of college I was first introduced to the writings of Audre in a Women’s Studies course. Throughout the academic term, students read several articles each week, discussed them in the class, and wrote journal entries that reflect on the week’s readings. Week after week, most of the assigned materials were those written by white, middle-class, straight (or sometimes “political lesbian”) women, and I was having difficulty relating to much of what was being discussed. I kept writing in my journal how I didn’t relate to the reading, but I did not realize it had anything to do with the selection of the materials. I felt bad about being so “negative” about feminism and feminists.

Toward the end of the term, one week was dedicated to the work of “women of color” (yes, a whole week–woo hoo!). If I remember correctly, it consisted of selections from the anthology “This Bridge Called My Back” (Combahee River Collective statement, and I think one of the Cherrie Moraga’s pieces) and Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider.” For the first time, these articles spoke to me. They gave voice to my feelings of alienation and frustration that I could not point a finger on. And even though it was just a week out of the entire term, and it is possibly the worst form of tokenism within the discipline, they anchored me to feminism and Women’s Studies to this date. Without “Sister Outsider,” I may not have been a feminist today.
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Audre Lorde deserves better than some superficial tribute at National Women’s Studies Association.

Date: March 26, 2008

Several weeks ago, I was contacted by the National Women’s Studies Association and invited to speak on the “Tribute Panel” at this year’s annual meeting in June. The tribute panel is designed to “honor past scholarship that set new directions for the field,” and this year it is dedicated to Black feminist thought, especially the work of Audre Lorde. Since Audre Lorde is one of my all-time greatest heroes and influences, I was very excited about this opportunity.

However, there’s one problem: all NWSA can offer in exchange for my service is a complimentary conference registration and membership. Since my resources are extremely limited as I do not have a regular source of income (I pay my bills and fund my organization, Intersex Initiative, by giving lectures at universities across the country, which doesn’t happen frequent enough to be reliable), I can’t attend the conference unless travel and lodging expenses are provided.

So I wrote Allison Kimmich, the executive director of NWSA, to explain my circumstance, and asked for some financial assistance so that I could attend the conference. She replied “I do not have discretionary funds available to cover travel and lodging for invited speakers. As our letter of invitation noted, NWSA would be able to offer complimentary membership and registration; I certainly wish we could do more.”

I realize that NWSA’s resources are limited, and might not be able to offer all the expenses for all speakers. But if it wishes to invite activists, artists, independent scholars and others who do not have a tenured or tenure-track academic appointment or a conference budget through their job, I believe that they need to provide expenses. Otherwise, only those activists who are independently wealthy would ever be represented.

I asked some members of the Governing Council of NWSA to advocate for funding on my behalf, and they did, but in vain. At this point, I wrote an appeal to WMST-L, an international women’s studies mailing list, explaining the situation, and asked members of NWSA to help me by 1) writing letters of support to NWSA, 2) pledge a donation to cover my expenses, and 3) arrange a speaking gig for me to raise money.

The response was very encouraging: thanks to supporters who circulated my appeal in other women’s studies and NWSA-affiliated email lists, about a dozen people came forward to offer contributions ranging from $25 to $300 (wow) within several days, and I was able to quickly raise enough money to pay for the airfare between Portland and Cincinnati, where the conference is being held.

It also began to mount a pressure on NWSA, as several caucus presidents and Governing Council officers began asking Allison why NWSA couldn’t provide travel and lodging expenses for an invited speaker. Then strange thing happened: when contacted by Barbara Howe, the Governing Council President of NWSA, Allison Kimmich told her that I had been offered free hotel room at the conference site.

What is going on? Allison did not offer to assist me with any expenses except registration and membership fees (which doesn’t cost NWSA anything, as the marginal cost of adding a member or attendee is virtually zero) in her initial invitation dated March 3, and also in her second email (after I explained that I could not attend the conference without assistance) on March 14. But she is telling other people that I was offered free lodging, directly contradicting what she has told me before.

Did Allison change her mind, because of the bad publicity my appeal has generated? I truly don’t know, since I still haven’t heard directly from her about the hotel room. But by (falsely) telling Barbara that I was offered free lodging at the conference site, Allison is making me out to be a swindler, a con artist, for seeking donations to cover the very expense that has supposedly been paid for by the NWSA.

Was this an intentional spin of the Karl Rove variety designed to smear me? I’m not sure, but it makes me feel sick to my stomach to think about it. In fact, I almost don’t want to attend NWSA after all this, although I still feel that it’s important for me to be there. I can’t allow them to pay superficial tribute to Audre Lorde and her work while the organization continues to operate in ways such as this that alienate and marginalize women of color, poor women, queer and trans people, etc.

Oh, did I mention that this year’s conference is “dedicated to the ongoing process of undoing the long history of racism and homophobia in Cincinnati, NWSA, and beyond”?

(Just to remind everyone: there are many great people within NWSA, including the folks who have offered contributions and advocated on my behalf. I’m just addressing the general organizational tendency and historical patterns within NWSA, not its members…)

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