It has always intrigued me to hear about people’s “realization moments”–for it seems that, often, women and men come to understand feminism in a sudden moment in time when it became clear, or a series of common events that string together to form the sentence, “Something is not right here.”
I have these moments, and I’ve often thought how interesting it was that my first self-identifiable “feminist realizations” floated around in one single summer, the summer I studied at the Joseph Smith Seminar.
These moments stand out starkly in my memory–they still feel like moments when I first began to let myself realize something, something very important. And I think they underscore and exhibit many problems we have with assumptions, how hegemonic they can be, and how difficult it is to live in a world where you do not fit those assumptions–you are essentially either ignored or mislabeled (misunderstood/without self-actualization).
Scene: Joseph Smith Graduate Student Seminar BBQ, Provo, UT. It was the kick-off party to a summer of Mormon Studies scholarship and all the seminar participants were invited to come (and bring their families, if they had any) so we could all meet up in a casual setting. It’s important for you to understand that I was one of the selected seminar participants, and I’m female.
I walk into the small home of the Drs. Bushman and find a table with sticker name-tags and a bunch of markers. As I’m writing my name, another (male) friend I had met at MHA that year and fellow seminar selectee who I will call Mike, also arrives at the sticker table. We both put our name-tags on and chat a little about our summers. As we turn around, we are greeted by a man and a woman with their accompanying infant.
It becomes obvious very quickly that they have assumed Mike and I are married, mostly because they keep asking questions about where we live and what he “does.” I noticed that regardless of who was asking, all the questions are only directed at Mike.
Mike and I are obviously flummoxed as to how to extricate ourselves from an increasingly embarrassing situation, especially since we keep answering honestly and the hints aren’t being taken (“Well, I live in Boston and Mike lives in D.C.” “Wooooowwwww, that must be really hard on your relationship.”)…so the assuming continues. Within about ten seconds, Husband A has already pulled Mike to the side to ask him about what he wants to focus on during the seminar. Wife A has similarly pulled me aside and asks me about what I’m planning to do with my day in Mike’s absence from home.
As the BBQ continues, I notice that, while many of the male participants are approaching each other warmly and starting up conversations, no one approaches me or my fellow seminar and single female participant, Lynette. We end up sitting together on a blanket outside. When Dr. Bushman asks for everyone’s attention and points all the seminarians out one by one, I cannot help but notice some very surprised faces from men I had attempted to introduce myself to only a couple minutes earlier, but had been politely rebuffed. My attempts at making conversation with them went something like this:
::approach person I know is a seminar participant from past eavesdropping::
::hold out hand::
“Hello! My name is Apame and I overheard that you’re interested in the fundamentalist revivals? Is that what you’re going to focus on this summer?”
::tight, awkward-looking smile::
“Yes. Nice to meet you. Oh, I need to go help my three year old get some food. Goodbye.”
Halfway through the seminar we are all invited to another BBQ at a BYU religion professor’s house. As Lynnette, Mike, and I have become friends over the course of the seminar and since we are the only single seminarians, we arrange rides. I end up riding to the BBQ with Mike because he has a car and I don’t.
When we arrive, Mike is greeted by the professor at the door and I’m simply told that his wife is in the kitchen–in a tone that would suggest helpful directions to a place I asked about going to…though I hadn’t said a word.
He seems to be waiting for me to hie to the kitchen…which is really awkward, since I was told the reason for this BBQ was for me to actually discuss my particular research with this man since my paper shared academic interests with his own. I could have just outed myself right there, but to tell you the truth, I was confused and hurt, realizing that, once again, I had been assumed out of my actual role without any question.
So, I resignedly (and also because I had be well trained to never cause a stir–to embarrass someone else) wander into the warm and bustling kitchen, where I am promptly given a knife, a cutting board, and tomatoes. Only women are helping in the kitchen while all men are talking in the living room or on the porch. I note this fact–it is striking.
I feel sort of helpless since I don’t want to be rude by not helping with the food (I didn’t want these women to think that I was “above” the work or anything lame like that), but I also knew that my job at this BBQ was to talk Mormon History with this professor just like every single other seminarian was doing at that very moment. By now, Lynette had arrived. But she had not been directed to the kitchen, I suppose, because she had come by herself and had not been assumed to be Mike’s wife…again.
It wasn’t until the Drs. Bushman arrived that Claudia Bushman saw me cutting tomatoes and loudly exclaimed, “Apame! What are you doing in there! You’re supposed to be talking to Professor ____!” She took over my slicing and promptly bustled me out to the porch. Again, there were more than a few surprised faces on both sides of the kitchen island that day.
In all three of these memories, I was very clearly assumed to be something that I wasn’t, without anyone thinking that I could possibly be anything otherwise. It wasn’t that I felt indignity or dismay at the thought of being “a wife” or not a scholar…it was the realization that I couldn’t have been anything else in the minds of most of those around me. Even if I had been a wife, why couldn’t I have just as easily been the seminarian while my hypothetical husband supported me? That was clearly not anywhere near anyone’s radar, and that was so very telling to me.
I would have to say that the Joseph Smith Seminar was the first time I began to see how I was so often assumed to be an “other” or someone’s attachment. The JSS was the place I first became a feminist, not only because of the feminist scholarship and critical thinking I was exposed to in lectures, but even more because of the way I was treated by many of my very own peers and colleagues.