Surviving Higher Education: A mad feminist gets her degree in Women’s Studies

By Kit-Bacon Gressitt / Excuse Me, I’m Writing

There is a nice little pool outside my office door. I recall thinking late one night that the thing would kill me before it ever became a reality. My excavated yard had metamorphosed into a mud pit, transformed by a malevolent deluge, and I was down, sinking into the sucking miasma, my flashlight lifted to the heavens, afraid that my corpse might be found in the morning’s muck.

Turns out, all I had to do was sit up: The mud was barely a foot deep.

But that sense of inundation, of being caught in a vortical force that I could not escape, that became my operating mode as I pursued a degree in Women’s Studies for the past 18 months.

Oh, sure, I had decades of work and personal experience that had supplied an endless flow of fodder for my feminist advocacy and writing and taught me to work damn hard. But I knew the degree would inform my feminism, lend it some analytical and philosophical substance. Kind of like the Scarecrow in the Land of Oz: He had a brain, but he needed something to confirm that it was working properly.

Turns out, my brain works just fine, but not necessarily the way the institution of the university wanted. In fact, to my surprise, the university wanted very little from me, other than my cash and my silent acquiescence to its patriarchal structures.

Go figure.

As surprised as I was to have discovered that Women’s Studies had survived the anti-woman backlash of the 1990s and the recession that began in 2007, I was more surprised to discover that Cal State San Marcos was not much different from any other bureaucracy — and it was leaning toward the structure of for-profit colleges, notorious for their taking financial advantage of students, enticing them with loans and then abandoning them to flounder. What ridiculously naïve assumptions I had made about an enlightened academia!

Instead of plunging into a sanctuary of intellectual exploration, challenging concepts and collegial discourse, I had to battle a vortex of classism, homophobia and sexism to get through most of my classes.

I had professors who failed to understand that their young working-class students of color did not share their experiences or their worldviews. I sat in classes with male students who insisted on such extraordinary assumptions as that the gendered imbalance of power was innate, based on the “fact” that cave men would just hit women on the head with a club, drag them into a cave, and screw them whenever they wanted. Seriously, he said that. “Troglodyte” comes to mind.

Although the university had some women in high places, they might as well have been teetering in too-high heels on a beauty pageant runway, for the fearful path they tread between the corporate litigation risk analyses their attorneys apparently fed them and the campus’ need for bold leadership on issues of discrimination, harassment and inequity. The administration’s response to student promulgation of rape culture? Perpetual silence, ever opting for the corporate side of the walk.

In the midst of a recession, escalating student fees, a reduced number of classes, and faculty laboring without a contract, the university created and filled four new executive positions and turned the summer term into a profit center, charging the predominantly working-class students 27% to 59% more per unit1 than during the rest of the year.

The student population was burdened with overt and unaddressed class distinctions, the balance of power inevitably favoring white males, a small group of whom had such a sense of entitlement that they succeeded in establishing an edition of a local hate publication on campus, virulently targeting every other demographic but straight, white males — and not once eliciting a single word of critique, much less condemnation, from the administration to the campus community.

The myriad repetitions on campus of our pervasive social ills passing for collegiality were overwhelming. Oppression, prejudice and downright ugly ignorance were, essentially, de rigueur, flaccidly addressed with t-shirt campaigns, while the administrators remained absent, living the unexamined life. It took an almighty effort to stay focused on my studies, when I really wanted to install a permanent protest nest atop the tower of the administration building, slap a rubber on the ultimate symbol of the university’s hegemonic leadership. The world would be a better place if some seeds did not propagate.

Turns out, I learned a lot anyway.

Most important, I learned that for all the university’s failings, the Women’s Studies Department, not immune to the ravages of operating in a patriarchy, still managed to provide a sense of feminist camaraderie that I will sorely miss. At least they got it, that stuff that I’m always so mad about, and they could “deconstruct” it blindfolded, while I, having avoided deconstructing anything since my days of building and demolishing fairy houses, had been required to employ the now honored academic device in order to make the grade.

But finally I am finished, and the maelstrom has calmed into a benevolent puddle.

At the beginning of this adventure, my daughter had said that I was already angry and majoring in Women’s Studies would just make me worse. I figured it was now time for a reality check, so I asked her, “Hey, am I worse? Did Women’s Studies make me angrier?”

“Yeah!” she said, missing not a fraction of a beat. “That’s what happens when you learn how sh–ty the world is.”

“But I already knew how sh–ty the world is.”

“But now you know more about why it’s so sh–ty. You can complain more intelligently about it — and in jargon, too!”

Turns out, my kiddo is right.

So here’s what I figure I’ll do. I’ll keep writing and critiquing the world, because I’m not ready to give up on it. I’m dropping “hegemony” from my lexicon and replacing it with “sexist pig sh-t,” which more accurately reflects my state of mind. And I’m taking a tall adult beverage and a floatation device into the pool to celebrate that I survived, that I now have a degree in Women’s Studies, that I am even more a mad feminist.



1 These figures are based on the 2012 summer term per unit tuition fee of $289, the spring semester flat fee of $2736, and the assumption that a student is taking four or five classes during the spring term.



  1. avatarJEC says

    An old saying – life’s a bitch, and then you die. “How sh*ty the world is…” depends on what’s expected – and where did those expectations come from? Mad at the world? or yourself? Aah, it goes round and round – as a wise wanderer once noted – don’t like today just wait – it’ll change.

    • avatar says

      Interesting, JEC, that the negative word you chose to use, “bitch,” denigrates my sex, not a male’s. Thanks for illustrating my point.

  2. avatar says

    Feminists behave like boors, and are surprised and outraged when the boys raised by feminists grow up to behave like boors, too. The power dynamic feminists intentionally ignore is that patriarchy is not about male power, but about family power, it’s true label is oligarchy and the power is wielded by both women and men. During the British occupation of India, for example, memsahib power was considered by many Indians to be far more potent and oppressive than that of the men. Englishmen, like men everywhere, were prone to assimilation. They were susceptible to the charms of Indian women. Memsahibs, a.k.a. Englishwomen, were not especially tolerant of this, and destroyed the status and careers of many of the men who succumbed. In America, American Indian men know the power of the non-native women, too, and one might imagine how the complaints of middle class and upper middle class white women sound to us. From the rez to the city, and everywhere in between, it’s all our homeland, and the feminists, most of whom are not native, busily blame us for all the ills ever to befall them while occupying the land of our ancestors. History, perhaps, though never a feminist, might forgive me for saying that I care, but not that much.

    • avatar says

      RB! Really?

      Norman Vincent Peale’s book, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” is the type of text a Women’s Studies course would deconstruct with relish — to illuminate it’s hegemonic, racist, sexist core to those naive enough to fall for the title.

      • avatarRB says

        Congrats on your degree. I just thought it would be fun sport for the ‘Power of Positive Thinking’ to meet the ‘Power of Negative Thinking’ in a two body literary collision.

        • avatar says

          Funny thing about activists, RB: Our role is inherently positive. It takes a tremendous amount of hope and belief that oppressive people and social structures can change, in order to challenge them.

  3. avatarAnna Daniels says

    Wow- Power of Positive Thinking? Wise wanderers? I just had a long talk with my vagina. My angry feminist vagina. (Which also has a great sense of humor, BTW!) Feminists don’t really have to spend long tedious hours trying to find someone, anyone, to make them angry. Whole state legislatures, Congress, even those small government liberty lovin’ libertarians come to us! And the Catholic bishops! Mandated trans vaginal probes! Egg people with full constitutional rights! Less pay for equal work!
    Damn- where did I put my happy face?

    • avatarRB says

      Gee, majoring in women studies rather than engineering,,,,, seems like someone is volunteering for less pay. And Libertarians believe you should have full constitutional rights including the right to be a big girl and pay for your own care.

      • avatarAnna Daniels says

        Have you notice RB that there are other jobs besides engineers? Let one of those folks do your colonoscopy! And I am surprised that you chose to overlook equal pay for equal work. Not every guy is an engineer either. They are faculty members and administrators. And there still is no wage parity across similar jobs.
        Libertarians absolutely do not support Roe v Wade. Have you forgotten that Ron Paul made abolishing abortion one of his planks?
        Furthermore I subsidize prostate exams, boner pills and treatments for testicular cancer. Angry feminist that I am, I would never ever consider telling a guy to be a “big boy and pay for your own care.” That is a disgusting cruel imperious mysogynist load of crap you just threw out there.

  4. avatarJim Guerin says

    I haven’t talked with an angry feminist being angry in a long time. But from what I saw, some of the angrier folks (whom I might not invite to dinner) were exactly those who got some of the advances which women have achieved since every other cause from the 60’s went belly up. So women are progressing and need to progress more, and it’s thanks to people who have zero tolerance for their status in life and don’t hesitate to remind me of it at every turn (which is why I won’t invite them to dinner but continue to admire them and will donate to their cause).