I have never taken a class in women's studies, gender studies or women's history. My college didn't offer such courses until the end of my career there, when I was too busy catching up with math and science requirements I had postponed in the desperate hope that the rules would change or the school would burn down before I was caught out.
I did, however, take a graduate-level psychology course, taught by a woman, in which we studied Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice, a feminist analysis of moral development in adolescents. Most of the students were women. It was a revelation: for once, our responses and experiences were treated as valid on the face of it. Men's contributions were respected as well, but the teacher encouraged them to step back and listen to what we had to say. It seemed to be a new experience for many men, and I think they benefited, too. I hesitate to use the overworked term "transformative," but that is the effect this class had on me.
It was unique in my academic career (a bachelor's and two master's degrees, and a PhD), and I have imagined since then what an entire woman-centered curriculum might be like. I think it would have been a very different experience if the teacher had been a man. There is no way to prove this, but I believe the men in the class might not have been as willing to defer to female experience and wisdom in front of a male authority figure, and in any case, I think that having our experience and perceptions analyzed by someone who had never shared our position would feel different, unsafe—the way I grew up feeling in general history and politics classes, which were, essentially, men's studies.
Women now dominate my field, psychology—but so do middle-class white people, at least on the east coast of the United States. There is controversy in the field about whether white, middle-class therapists can effectively treat poor people and people of color, who make up the majority of clients at most clinics where I have worked. It is a delicate topic of discussion among therapists ands clients, as well.
My response, when these questions come up, is that a) no one can fully understand another's experience, but that I want to try, and b) race, class, and ethnicity are important parts of our identity, but they don't define us. I hope we can meet in the places we have in common and that when I stumble because I don't understand something you have gone through, we can use the alliance we have built from our commonalities to forge a bridge across the gaps. And generally it works out pretty well.
But I know that if the playing field were level, and the therapist pool were more diverse, many of theses clients would be better served by someone who didn't require so many explanations, and who didn't need to try to interpret a client's experience back to her in a language that might not be her own.
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