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Ms. Goes to College
Wanna know what college is like for a feminist? We go to the source with essays by students.

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-YELL-Oh Girls!, edited by Vickie Nam
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Mother Millet: A book excerpt
Kate Millet
Columns: Daisy Hernandez, Patricia Smith and Gloria Steinem
Your Work
Academic Discrimination Lives On

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Eva Foster, Class of 2001
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, Oklahoma

I never planned to be a radical feminist. I came to Oklahoma State with a vaguely liberal mindset, ready to embrace the leftist politics I thought universities specialized in. Imagine my surprise: on this visually lovely campus, with Georgian architecture, wide lawns, and prosperous but rumpled students carrying expensive backpacks and cell phones, the politics are anything but vaguely liberal. It's the kind of campus where the Pagan Student Association and the Sexual Orientation Diversity Association might find "Burn in Hell" written over meeting notices; where a Roe v. Wade anniversary display is vandalized and almost no one objects; where the university newspaper runs columns making fun of lesbians and criticizing equal-pay laws.

To be honest, I didn't notice the politics all at once. I was just glad to be in college, find friends, be reunited with my high school boyfriend. My friends were either apolitical or conservative, and we steered away from topics that would incite argument. I got engaged, then married at 19. It was too much trouble to make a fuss about the sexism in the wedding industry. I did decline the garter throw, quietly talked the minister into not saying "honor and obey," and kept my own last name. But when the minister, a fundamentalist Christian, sneakily inserted something about the boy being "head of household" into our vows on my wedding day, I just smiled and said, "I do." I didn't want to rock the boat.

I must have known about feminism on campus before I got married, but it was in the background, certainly not part of the lives of anyone I knew. There was a NOW chapter, and I was acquainted with one feminist faculty member. NOW didn't get much publicity. The feminist professor worried about my early marriage. I ran into her the summer after my wedding, and we talked a long time, standing in the Oklahoma heat. I found myself saying, without knowing why, that I thought I'd join the NOW chapter. The next thing I knew, I was in the public library, looking up the only feminist I knew of — Gloria Steinem — and reading her books. Before getting married, and being radicalized by housework and the way people I didn't even know took me to task for keeping my name, I hadn't given feminism much serious thought. I believed in equality. I thought I was getting it, and I thought every woman at OSU was getting it.

We were getting something, but it wasn't equality. Equally qualified or more qualified female faculty were sometimes hired in my department for less money than their male counterparts. Women's studies on our campus was underfunded, embattled. We had no women's center.

Even so, I found that behind the scenes, there were plenty of feminists. I became one of the radical variety. In Oklahoma, you experience feminism mainly through books, since marches, demonstrations, feminist groups, and the like are rare. I certainly read my way into radical feminism. I had some questions about the feminist debate over pornography, and discovered Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. I liked what these women had to say, the way they positioned themselves against the entire stream of culture and what people say is natural about it.

One advantage of attending a conservative university is that while feminism overall is suspect, there's no special animosity for any particular kind of feminism. People here don't couch things in politically correct language. Students and community members are comfortable saying they are against civil rights for lesbians, that children are a woman's responsibility, that affirmative action prevents "more qualified" candidates from getting jobs. It's easy to see patriarchy at work here, and its proponents are against feminism in general. The liberals I've met tend to single out radical feminism, saying it's anti-male, anti-equality, or anti-free-speech. But conservatives target all types of feminism equally, leaving all feminists at liberty to move from one kind of politics to another without extra scrutiny. It is an odd, isolated, accidental kind of freedom.

I understand that in many places, radical feminists and liberal feminists don't agree or get along. This is less true at Oklahoma State-when you're in the same boat with people working against a hostile current, it's suicidal to fight over the rudder. Of course there's friction. During productions of Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues, some of us had problems with the script: we felt some lines were essentialist, equating women with their vaginas as if the vagina embodies all it means to be female. We didn't always agree with the play's producers, who seemed too concerned about making men comfortable with a production about women. But these disagreements didn't stop any of us from participating in the play during the three years we've put it on-or from enjoying ourselves. At a school where Jesus Week is an annual event, getting up on the stage and saying "vagina" to a crowd of students and faculty is terrifying, liberating, wonderful.

I have seen feminism grow at Oklahoma State. The female faculty members are now paid fairly. The Women's Faculty Council, once defunct, is a presence on campus. Women's studies is growing, students have founded a women's center, and a new women's film festival is so popular that getting a seat for some of the films has been difficult. As the feminist faculty become organized and more numerous, as things like The Vagina Monologues become a yearly event rather than a new and shocking one, I know that feminism is making this campus more progressive.

In fact, to say feminism has made great strides at OSU is to greatly understate the explosion of concern for women's issues that has occurred in the past few years. I will always remember the first time the Women's Faculty Council chair unexpectedly called me, offering to pay for advertising my group needed, but couldn't afford, for an upcoming feminist program. I didn't know her, but she knew the feminist students and wanted to support us. I almost cried. I don't know if it was relief, or the thrill of knowing feminism at OSU was so widespread, I no longer knew everyone involved in the movement — and that even so, we had not lost our instinct to help each other on the grounds that a feminist action, any action, is worth supporting. It is something to learn that feminists can approach their common goals in this way. Finding that kind of mutuality and shared respect here may be the greatest gift OSU has given me, the most valuable lesson I take with me into the world.

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