A new college course emboldened young feminist writers at the University of Washington, Bothell—during a school term of mass shootings and lost constitutional rights.
When spring quarter began, my students and I were navigating the misogynist nightmare we’ve become accustomed to the past five-plus years. Then about halfway into the term the Alito draft was leaked; punctuated by the white supremacist terrorist attack in Buffalo. Ten days later, another young male shooter murdered mostly brown children and teachers as police watched outside and failed to act to save their lives.
Summer began and another nightmare was realized: The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Fortunately, by the time the quarter had ended, my class, “The Power of Feminist Writing,” had emboldened a group of feminist warriors like nothing I had ever seen in my nearly 25 years of university teaching. Students have since attended protests together, showing that the bonds created in the class remain strong. I am optimistic that they will mobilize their new skills and write their rage against the most misogynist turn they will hopefully ever see in their lifetime.
The new spring course was upper-division, small—only 23 students—and discussion centered. Many students were gender, women and sexuality studies (GWSS) majors or minors; the rest other interdisciplinary majors. There was only one cisgender man in the class, and he is gay. The rest of the students were cisgender women or transgender/non-binary folks. Almost half were Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), including biracial, and immigrants or children of—thus many bilingual students.
They were queer and straight. They had disabilities, some hidden, some visible. Some were considered thin, while others called themselves fat. There were many, many survivors of trauma in our classroom, some sexual assault, some other forms, some probably both. Some struggled with housing or food security, if not during my class, in their recent past.
In short, my students are not the protagonists in mainstream texts.
The class was part analysis-of-texts and part hands-on workshops. We looked at a plethora of genres including memoir, fiction, public scholarship, children’s books, poetry and zines. We discussed: What makes a text feminist? Why are such writings necessary? We looked at the power in publishing—why some voices are heard while others are silenced and even kept out of classrooms.
The basic premise of the course is that a text is feminist if it is telling a hidden and/or minoritized history. The power of said text is magnified when the author is a member of the minoritized community. Keeping that definition in mind, I assembled a diverse group of guests and assigned readings by predominantly BIPOC and/or queer/trans folks to truly embody the power of feminist writing. Much of our learning happened through a phenomenal collection of guest authors including Laurie Frankel, Claudia Castro Luna, Ijeoma Oluo, editors from The Feminist Press, Ms., Feminist Formations and more.
One author after another told my students that they and their stories matter. Up until that point, many of the students, at best, had never heard that, or worse heard the opposite. As one student said in the opening line of her portfolio: “To the people out there that feel unimportant, dismissed and unseen: Come take ‘The Power of Feminist Writing’ with Dr. Julie Shayne!”
I gave the students many choices of genres for their portfolios and encouraged them to write the texts they wish they could have read. Inspired by children’s author and guest Sondra Segundo, many students wrote children’s books—books they wished their teachers assigned them growing up. A few of the texts were bilingual and celebrated bilingualism rather than demonized the students who spoke their parent’s native language.
Most students found their rage in this class. As a result of meeting one author after another who conveyed to them that they mattered, there was absolutely no reason to silence their anger. And writing is a powerful way to translate that rage into agency.
Many created zines that flipped formerly painful experiences into activism and feminist manifestos. They chose their own audiences and one student made it clear her audience were other feminists:
“These pieces were a letter to the feminist in me, and this is catered to the feminist in you. In this online space I’ve created I do not wish to waste my time explaining to those that wish to condemn me, but instead use it as a sort of appreciation letter to those I know truly support me and that I know would validate my experiences and feelings.”
Students also selected one of six memoirs: Brandi Carlile, Joy Harjo, Chanel Miller, Janet Mock, Megan Rapinoe or Ali Wong. Everything I assigned was meant to tell the students “I see you; your story matters,” so I chose memoirs by women from multiply marginalized backgrounds.
The memoir workshop was the last section of the class, my final attempt to communicate that the world is full of feminist warriors that look like them, had led lives like theirs and overcame struggles like theirs. Students wrote beautiful pieces, validating their traumas, holding people accountable and celebrating their triumphs. Again, their feminist badassery leaped from the page. Two students even published online pieces that may someday be remembered as the first drafts of their memoirs.
Amidst the enthusiasm, excitement and anger-turned-agency, we also dealt with reality. I started classes after we heard about massacres in Uvalde and Buffalo by returning to the course content which, at its core, is about misogyny and white supremacy. We reflected on readings that told us why feminist writing matters, texts which linked toxic masculinity and mass shootings—Rebecca Solnit and Ijeoma Oluo—to make their cases. After the news about Roe, we returned to our readings about reproductive rights in Argentina.
As upsetting as it all was, the class kept us afloat. As one student said in her portfolio:
“Talking about topics such as racism, misogyny and femicide, amidst all that happened in the world this quarter, would have made some people pessimistic, and it could even be surmised that my already jaded self would come out of this class even more down about the state of the world. But the exact opposite has happened. By providing a safe place for these discussions to take place, Dr. Shayne has brought together a group of individuals hell-bent on facing all of the atrocities caused by systemic oppression head-on, who were able to form a community through our mutual anger at the aforementioned systemic oppression.”
Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.