Using the library intimidates me because the entrance boasts very small entry and exit turnstiles. When I am in the library, I miss meals rather than embarrass myself entering or leaving more than is absolutely necessary. I survive meals by sneaking in sandwiches and juice in my backpack and consuming them furtively, or hiding them behind computers and large piles of books. The hateful turnstiles are designed for six-foot, flat chested, slim waisted males with 60 percent of their body weight in their upper torso. I, on the other hand, am a five foot, five inch have breasts, and am an ample waisted female with 60 percent of my weight in my lower body. As I try to squeeze through the thirty-five inch library gate featuring rapier-sharp, windmill-like protrusions is aimed directly at my pubis As the turnstile's arm turns relentlessly, it imperils my right breast. Wriggling sideways to avoid the impending attack, I thrust myself through the barrier by centrifugal force. I stumble, regaining balance but not dignity. With heavy backpack and arms loaded with text, pre-requisite environmental coffee mug, and umbrella, I pause. I consider the devilish device as a young male and slender female slip successively through the turnstile. I approach the obstruction with caution, hopefully sauntering nonchalantly. I am immediately poked in the stomach by a gate appendage. Undaunted, armload balanced precariously shoulder high, I will myself out the other side. Problematically, my generously proportioned body is abruptly halted by the gate's assault upon my coat pocket. A young man, never imagining someone could not slip effortlessly through the turnstile, fails to negotiate his stop, and we collide. The melee characterizes life at university for a woman of size. I do not fit university turnstiles.
Nor are gateways my only physical handicap, my backpack is surely made for an alien creature. If the straps are fastened to be short they bind while being shrugged onto my wide back. Once in position the pack rests too high and it feels as though a wrong move will flip me flat my back. All women know this is a dangerous position regardless of one's size. However, when the straps are too long, the heavy backpack rests on the ample upper curve between my short back and abundant bum. Furthermore, I know that I must be cursed, because the few times the straps are adjusted perfectly, they immediately slip their fastenings and the backpack falls off. Straps meant to secure it around my waist do not meet because they are too short. There is an endless struggle between myself and the indispensable backpack designed for another species. I do not fit backpacks.
Lecture hall seating with long strips of tables ten inches wide are too narrow for notes, text, and dimpled arms. The cramped chairs or benches are tiny, hard, and often broken. A cracked seat is a nightmare for a person of size, allowing two options; looking silly as you try to replace it, or looking silly as it unceremoniously dumps you on the floor. Another type of seat is the old-fashioned `grade school' desk that opens on one side and features a postage-stamp writing area. All the seats are much too small for me, an indignity as I contort my shape by sucking in my stomach and holding my breath. I tumble in, then, breathe as I hope the chair neither splits nor explodes. It requires a half twist from the waist to allow writing, hence I take terse notes. I do not fit the university seats.
There are more than physical barriers though, I am reminded often that I am not welcome in Academe. I think that I should be celebrated as a student, but instead I am insulted as a student. By design, convention and practice, the institution neither encourages nor recognizes my skills and experiences. I am alternately marginalised or rejected, and my years of work in community animation (itself a topic of academic scrutiny) are not appreciated, my reminiscences not acknowledged or given uptake. Professors lecturing on nineteen-sixties activism brush me off when I tell them that I helped organize public housing tenants, poverty activists, women's groups and welfare right's movements. They prefer the accounts of academic `experts'. Women's Studies instructors are also dismissive when I share the excitement of real, lived experiences such as my arrest for interrupting the House of Commons over the issue of abortion. Experience does not fit academe.
I am deeply bitter about the lack of financial, educational, or practical support offered for intelligent mature students with limited educational backgrounds. I recall that I cried for two days because I didn't know how to use the library but was too intimidated to ask for help. My first essay assignment terrified me. First catatonic, then frantic, I scrambled to find out what a bibliography was, and more urgently, how to use spell-check to hide my working class inadequacy. It was agony to examine topics of incest, abuse, reproductive technology, and poverty. The anguish of personal experience sprang to my consciousness, closing my throat and inhibiting my keyboard. Academe demands a smothering of life experiences to reach an `objectivity' that is impossible to achieve without lying. This dilemma mirrors the lives of all women, but is especially poignant as a cache of experiences assault the emotional fragility of aging women. Aging woman's experience does not fit Academe.
No-one else on campus looks like me; the few female professors do not share my rounded shape. I look rooted and sturdy, but strong substantial women do not fit university norms. As a matter of fact, nothing here or is designed for me. High steps, long walks, snowbanks, steep stairs, breathlessly tiny bathroom stalls, long slow lineups, petite school clothing, contact sports, student dorms, rowdy social events, rock concerts and loud pubs confront me. What the hell am I doing here? University is exclusively a male, white youth oriented hegemony. Should I consider a sex-change operation or just cross-dressing? Liposuction and diet milkshakes to congratulate myself on disappearing? Perhaps lucrative and illegal drug sales to guarantee my welcome at rock concerts and campus pubs? A reality check says that I still would not fit Academe.
I am deeply insulted by my university. The Administration bows to traditional misogyny, men benefit from what I call `the inalienable rights of the cock'. Male administrators, staff, professors, and students are permitted to practice harassment, discrimination, rape, and assault women without meaningful penalty. This year, my university refused to fire a professor convicted of sexually assaulting a family member. Other male and female professors known as pillars of the community, spoke of their concern for their colleague and his rights. They offered no similar care for the ravaged child, nor for his impact on students who themselves were incest or rape survivors. Institutionalized male power is merely tacit permission to practice prejudices and the academic subordination of women. Feminist ideals do not fit university practices.
My campus is poorly-lit with lots of shrubbery, dark parking lots, unilluminated indentations, and an inadequate, insensitive security staff. The recent acquisition of a partially unused building adjacent to a newly relocated bus shelter should have been predicated on making the property safe. The area had derelict vehicles, a parking lot, ominous darkness, and isolation after six in the evening. One year ago on the first night of classes I was sexually assaulted by three young men at a poorly-lit, newly located bus stop. It ranks as one of the most appalling experiences of my fifty years. When I first saw the men, they made me think of my own high-spirited sons. Then they taunted me with explicit sexual invitations, and informed me of the acts they would force me to do. They tore my clothing, grabbed my breasts, bruised my chest, and clutched at my vagina. The arrival of the bus stopped them from raping me. When I could not afford a counsellor the Administration declined to assist with costs, and denied permission for me to search for the attackers in student identification photographs. Let me review this. I look like a mother/wife, they look like my/your sons. Scary, isn't it? Nothing was done - the area is still improperly lit. Women's safety does not fit institutional priorities.
Many older returning students are working class, with childhood and work experiences characterized by poverty and hardship. However, many are the poorest ever upon returning to university. They go hungry, use food banks, get welfare during the summer, and have to beg and borrow money, clothes and food. They are often deeply in debt for student loans. While they often celebrate an indefatigable feminist spirit, their lives are hard. Poverty does not fit a university designed for elite norms.
Astonishingly, although one half of students are women and one-third mature, yet they cast no reflection in the larger campus tapestry. They arrive or return to post secondary education for a multitude of reasons including economic factors and family breakdowns coupled with a passionate and sincere desire to learn. They are single parents, career women, and older women. They are usually part-time, since few can afford to attend full time. They are often single parents responsible for primary child care; women do not have wives to provide free child-care. Their needs for child-care, academic support services, family housing, counselling and family, professional, or social networks are conveniently overlooked. University does not fit mature women with families.
There is no bright line of change in Academe, all women find discrimination. Their concerns and issues are trivialized, silenced, denied or ignored. I, as a student, am punished for being female, critical, and public; this makes university a painful ordeal. I am mocked, my experiences denied or rewritten by academic theorists. My analyses and methodologies are questioned, I am told that I have no writing skills. I have been threatened with failure for non-compliance (read defiance). I have been edited and vilified in campus publications, I was branded as a `straight-privilege-user-breeder' because I was a heterosexual mother once married to a white man. I am targeted by professors who alternately attack me for my views or force me to be the unpaid feminist educator defending all feminist ideologies. I am silenced by the classism and elitism of feminist and non-feminist, male and female professors. I expect more of feminist professors, and I do complain when I don't get it. I resent any professor's collusion with an academic androcentrism as problematic to me. While some feminist professors strive to be innovative, inclusive, and supportive, many use power as do traditional males. The practical result of their complicity is that for twenty eight years I was a feminist, but my worst marks are in feminist courses. In a genuine learning environment, there will be a place for both abstract theory and grounded experience. Unfortunately, I do not fit feminism "a l'academie".
A feminist consciousness is an anguished consciousness, so I use my pain to empower me. Many theorists claim that women are victims with little alternative to their complicitous support of patriarchy. I know that the reality is that we always have a capacity to resist domination. I resist and invite others to join me. Resistance does not fit academe.
My introduction to an androcentric academe occurred when the university principal 'inadvertently misinformed me' about the process of making feminist backlash a theme at a major conference. The result was that a timely opportunity to discuss the future of campud backlash was lost, as was my naivety. Although my school was rated by Maclean's magazine as a 'top university', it is nonetheless renown for the trivialization of an anti-rape campaign where male students hung out banners with sexist slogans such as no means hit the bitch. Three of those many offenders convicted - but fully three years after the incident, too late for penalty or denial of graduate status. Also, in my second year, a male student was charged with raping three women students on campus. The Administration allowed the alleged perpetrator computer access from prison, then night-time access to the actual university grounds. Meanwhile, the alleged victims were shunned in class and vilified by male professors. Male rapist fit Academe, but victimized women do not.
I have emphasized my majestic image, but I am more than just a woman of size with wide back and generous breasts. In addition, I am also intelligent, street-smart, compassionate, funny, generous and loving. I am a good student, a radical feminist, a leader and organizer and a political confrontationalist. I am also a mother, an aunt, a grandmother, a partner, a friend, and a sister. I have been a chef, an animator, a researcher, a business women, and an adjudicator. My life has always been eclectic and multi-layered. In academe I am simply an asinine, fat, old woman; but in reality I am a second-wave sixties feminist with twenty-five years of community work. I am a woman of distinction who possesses both power and a herstory. I myself accepted the matronly stereotype, until I saw pictures of myself on campus. I beheld a commanding fifty-one year old, dignified woman with long silver hair, fashionable glasses, and chic clothes. I am graceful, well-groomed, and attractive, and have a warm and sincere smile. Surprise, I like myself! What a lesson to one who should be wiser at age fifty-one. Wise women do not fit the student stereotypes.
If we mature women students knew our numbers, we would know our potential and our power base. We would know one another and we would share the reasons we are attending university so late in our lives. We would demand change, inclusion, and representation. We would insist that information about menopause, child abuse, eating disorders, impotency and wife abuse be available at the student health clinic. We would question the allocation of money for drunken, violent, and the drunken, raping orientation and homecoming brawls. We would establish woman's centres as well as of hi-tech libraries and scientific research laboratories. We would demand comfortable desks for all, and library entrances that admit more than a 145 pound male. We would surely change the face of academe. We need to recognize, however, that we will be even less welcome as the significant feminist threat we pose to traditional academe becomes obvious to male academics and administrators.
At university impertinence is blasphemous, questions are suspect, and academic notions of inclusiveness actually dismisses many people. My experience of otherness is that of being female, working-class, poor, old, fat and silver-haired at my privileged, white, male, youth-oriented, heterosexual, hegemonic university. At times I despair, thinking that I should just leave university, since I am not a young rugged white male. In academe, difference is a poor fit.
But until we mature women recognize our number, validate our existence and seize power, academe will continue to ignore, exploit, and de-value us. To make academe fit feminism, I want to insert my reality and experiences. I want to force recognition of my physical differences, and to challenge the assumption that we do not properly belong. I want to compel recognition of the value of our epistemologies, our ways of knowing, and special skills. I want to demand that administrative and patriarchal types reply to my challenges. I am determined to remain in academe; I will not disappear. I will not speak weakly or be silenced, but I do speak my bitterness. It is time to recognize that my size, age or class is not the problem. They are both challenges and a crystalline clue in the quest for an inclusive solution. I categorically refuse the impossible task of trying to fit an androcentric Academe, but I am resolved to make Academe fit me. If successful, I will leave it a hell of a lot better place than I found it.
I therefore didn't get mad; I got even. I was elected president of a student government and presented alternate ideas and "in-your-face" opinions that officials, boards and committees were compelled to hear. While a few genuinely compassionate administrators "got it," too often the most commonly held opinion or insensitive stereotype prevailed. Despite my attempts, I am unsure that I left the university a hell of a lot better than I found it.
OTHER TOPICS ON THIS SITE
Resumé of Roberta Spark, MA
Prototype for An Anti-Bullying Boys Program
The White Ribbon Campaign
1997: Men's Movements, Wolves in Sheep's Clothing
Academic Shunning of Fat Old Women
Market Value: The Price of Mediated Meat
Cooking At Queen's
Language: The Father's Tongue
Links to Sites of Interest