true confessions

Most famous for her work with Sandra M. Gilbert in writing The Madwoman in the Attic, Susan Gubar edits and presents to us True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School (W.W. Norton, 2011), a collection of narratives contributed by 27 influential feminists in academia. True Confessions is an inspiring tribute to women who have entrenched themselves in feminist and scholarly pursuits with the means of understanding gender power in their own families. In most of their cases, these great and intelligent women unravel the fragile webs of their familial histories in an attempt to understand how their feminism was first conceived.

In “My Father’s Penis,” Nancy K. Miller discusses how she first came to understand the difference between phallus and penis. Taking care of her dying father, she comes upon a different version of the man who had rule her life with an iron will. His penis becomes a representation of his withering life, no longer the thing that demonstrated his power over her—as a woman and as a child. In contrast to the physical mystery of the penis — the physical part of him—the man, the father, “Phallus was the way my father could terrify me when I was growing up: throwing me across the room in a blind rage” (5). Phallus was his dominance, his ferocity—both of which she becomes master of when he is older and reliant upon her for his welfare. It is in this state of decay that he loses his power—over her and over himself. The mystery of his penis and his phallus is uncovered, unveiled, and Miller appropriates phallus control that had once belonged to him: “So now I decide, say no, and yell…maybe I, failing the penis, have my chance at the phallus” (6). By becoming his caregiver, daughter becomes master, and master is reduced to patient, powerless and dependent on those he tormented with the male privilege of his phallus.

Another daughter of an abusive and mean-spirited father, Jane Marcus does a beautiful job at contrasting the graceful and pure beauty of her father’s hands and feet with the darkness of his soul. Using religious references to discuss the graceful and bloodied feet of both Jesus and her father, she uses Christ’s purity as a backdrop with which to emphasize her father’s hate-filled rhetoric; they were both beautiful on the outside, but only one internalized that purity. In “A Reasonable Facsimile,” Marcus points out that her father was a far cry from resembling the perfection Jesus represented: “He taught us how to hate, using the language of humiliation against the harmless” (15). A drunk who made his daughters wait for him in the middle of the night in the city while he drank—a father who told her, an adolescent, to tough it out and refused to pick her up from the train station when she was accosted by a pervert that exposed himself to her every night—Marcus ends her narrative with the most telling sentence that defines father-daughter relationships: “The worst thing is that I loved him…We always love them, don’t we?” (23).

In discussing the sources of their feminism as well as their activism towards feminist philosophies and gender studies—familial relationships seem to define how they came to be—how they came to think of themselves as feminists. But it’s not just abusive and fascist fathers that breed feminist-daughters; it’s also passive or drunk and distant mothers, hateful grandmothers, remorseless husbands, and even sexist and privileged male professors. For some, it’s an illness that leads them to feminism.

In “Labial Politics,” Patricia Yaeger admits to being a bulimic, but she doesn’t know it until she finds herself immersed in Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, wherein they list the physical and psychological illnesses that confronted oppressed and silenced women during the Victorian era. It is in this book by women and for women that Yaeger finds herself and locates the origins of her illness as a social disease, engendered by society and its pressures on women. She confesses that “bulimia was [her] path to feminism” (51). It was at this point of her enlightenment that she joined feminism and writing about women, their bodies, their silent labias, and about the sickness that dominated her adolescence.

The most effective and appropriate essay in the mix, however, belongs to Matha C. Nussbaum, who exposes the unfairness and sexist barriers that women in academia experience. This discussion embraces all the voices and experiences that make up the text, since all these women come from academic backgrounds. As Nussbaum points out in “Don’t Smile So Much,” “sexual harassment in the academy…is about power” (165). Pregnant and married while in Harvard, it is at this elite University that Nussbaum discovers the unfair and sexist treatment of female faculty and graduate students by the male faculty. It is here that she learns that smiling all the time—her confessed propensity—is “a gesture of submission” (158). As is her refusal to address the sexual harassment that she and many female students suffered at the hands of many male professors with power over them, including her mentor. She admits that by not doing anything about it, by saying no year after year and learning and working beside this man, she was saying OK to the mistreatment of women. Nussbaum eventually learns that sexual harassment is not OK:

“one should never smile when sexual harassment is afoot. One should recognize it, and name it, and publicize it, and, above all, prevent it, by education, consciousness-raising, and in general constant tiresome harping on the harm it does.” (166)

In her text, Nussbaum asserts that “The main problem of feminism in philosophy is the infantile level of human development of many of the men who are in it” (162). Although this seems to be an accurate depiction of the men she encountered during her scholarship—even down to her own husband who could no longer deal with children and housework and work, albeit a good man—Nussbaum hits a bit of truth on the nail in her statement. While women, in academia or in any other field, try to accomplish everything —careers, children and home—many men are struck with an “infantile” aversion to women’s rising. As women rise, power shifts, as does the phallus, and men are faced with their mortality, their powerlessness, the threat to their male privilege.

Feminist Book Review: True Confessions:Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School

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