Lo & behold... They're just so damned brilliant!
Questions for Leslie Heywood
1. What does “memoir” mean to you? What does feminist mean to you?
A memoir is a genre of literary art that takes one specific time period in an individual’s life and tells the story relevant to that particular period, taking the details of a life and utilizing them to create an overall meaning or theme. A feminist is a person of any gender who believes that gender exists on a continuum instead of being divisible into stereotypes of feminine and masculine, and who is dedicated to social justice and equal opportunity for women everywhere.
2. Your voice changes throughout the memoir. Sometimes, you seem bold and assertive. At others, you’re utterly vulnerable. What message were you trying to convey through this shift in voice? Was it intentional?
I was trying to call attention to the contradictory messages about gender that were particularly strong in the post-Title IX era, but still exist to some extent today: the idea that if you have a female body, you are necessarily weaker than those with a male body, and can’t achieve as much physically, that if you’re an athlete you have to “apologize” for that by acting and looking stereotypically feminine, that women can achieve every bit as much as men, and are encouraged to do so to some extent, but they’d better be humble about it, and continually try to reassure others while they are doing so. The effect of these contradictory messages was to make teenaged girls feel like they had to both be better than the boys in order to be taken at all seriously, but at the same time that they had to apologize for their achievements so as not to be “intimidating.” Such messages contribute to a real sense of confusion—which is a girl supposed to be, bold and assertive or vulnerable and compliant? The message was always that if you are a girl, you have to be both, whereas boys are never asked to be the latter, only the former.
3. How do you think your memoir impacts young readers, especially young female athletes?
My hope has always been that it draws attention to the mixed messages, and shows how dangerous it is to try to always be all the things people want you to be. By the end of it, I hope it makes girls feel like it’s ok to be bold and assertive, and that you don’t have to run yourself into the ground to please others and be valued by them—that if you worry to much about pleasing them you WILL run yourself into the ground.
4. Why did you start running?
My mother was one of the early adopters of running in the early 1970’s, at the start of the running craze. I started running with her when I was four, and really liked the feel of it. Later, in school, I could always outrun the boys and was stronger than the boys and was really encouraged for this, got a lot of attention for this. So because that’s where I got approval, that’s where I put a lot of my effort in. I started competing in the 8th grade, did very well at many distances, and things just kind of picked up from there.
5. Do you have any advice on how one could balance running, feminism, and caring for the body?
Yes—do it, but within limits. You don’t have to prove yourself to the world over and over. I do think girls and women are culturally valued more in school settings than they were during the time the memoir was written, and although there is residual sexism, the idea of “girl power” has created an awareness of female value and solidarity we didn’t have. To be feminist is to value yourself and others, all others, and to put competition in the context not of overcoming others but performing at your best.
6. How has your self-discipline carried over into your adult, personal life, other than body building?
My sports training has given me wonderful career preparation, because I can work uninterrupted for very long periods of time and not lose focus. The goal-directedness of sports has translated very well into the academic life in that I am able to finish various tasks easily and often ahead of deadlines. Also I have a sense of fearlessness about tackling new projects I know I get from my sports background—it really did give me the sense I could do anything. I’m grateful for that background every day.
7. This semester, we also read Sandra Lipsitz Bem’s An Unconventional Family. How would you describe your family life? Your relationship with your partner? Your treatment of your children? Is it egalitarian? How has running and feminism shifted your understanding of family?
Now THIS is a tricky question. We definitely have a division of labor in the household, but it’s the opposite of the traditional one. My husband is a stay-at-home Dad, and does everything related to the care of the children, as well as most of the housework. I have the job, so I pay for everything. However, my husband is going back to school to get an Master of Library Science degree to become a children’s librarian once our children are both in school (they’re now 3 and 6), so I will do more of the childcare than I do now once that happens, and the money from his job will hopefully pay for our retirement and their college!! So that’s the plan. It seems egalitarian to us, and we’ve been very happy doing things this way. I think my athletic background, and my feminism, made it very important to me that I didn’t do things the traditional way, and I was lucky enough to meet someone who would much rather bring up the children than have a job in the workplace.
8. If you could change one thing about your memoir, what would it be?
I would have developed the other characters better, and not made it so much about me, me, me.
9. What was the response/commentary your memoir received? How did those portrayed in your memoir respond?
Women especially loved it, and many non-athletes who were in fields traditionally dominated by men like the sciences wrote to say how similar their experiences had been. Those portrayed were all fine with it, except on of the cross-country guys, who wrote to say “you SO did not beat me in that practice!” It was very funny.
10. This semester, we also read Jane Gallop’s Feminist Accused of Sexual Harassment. What is your opinion on student-teacher relationships, especially in relation to feminism?
Ha! That’s funny, too. Jane and I were together on the Leeza show when both our books came out, and she was the have-relations-with-your-students side and I was the don’t-have-relations side. It was contrived, and the audience sided with me. I still think it’s a very bad idea—I think the power differential always structures the relationship no matter what, and that just makes it wrong.
11. What is your relationship to your body today?
Much better now that I primarily do ashtanga yoga instead of running and lifting! This kind of yoga is very intense, and incredible workout, but it also gives you perspective and peace of mind, things that have always been missing for me. I still worry too much about what my body fat percentage is, and despair over the wrinkles I’m getting, but yoga has made the whole aging thing so much easier, and even the things I still worry about I have some distance from and perspective on.
12. What do you think is the biggest hurdle facing feminism today?
That no one takes it seriously, that it is seen as something that happened a long time ago rather than something we still need now. Outside of academia, everyone completely ignores it or demonizes it, even though so many of the possibilities girls and women have today were enabled by feminism. We need both a respect for the history, and a vision for the future.
Questions for Jane Gallop
1. What does “memoir” mean to you? What does feminist mean to you?
“Memoir” to me is a piece of writing which recounts things from the author’s life and reflects upon those things and what they might mean.
I apply the term “feminist” to anyone who claims the term, to anyone who identifies as a feminist.
A “feminist memoir” is thus a memoir written by an author who identifies as a feminist.
I take “feminist” also to mean in opposition male supremacy, in opposition to anything that treats women as less human than men.
2. Have you done anything to modify sexual harassment laws since writing this book?
I have done a good deal of speaking and writing on the topic since then, especially in the five years following my writing of the book. I wrote and published a couple of articles, lectured around the country, on various aspects of the topic. As a writer and a teacher, my “activism” generally consists of writing and speaking, trying to get people to think.
3. Have any of your views changed since writing/publishing this book?
Not in any substantive way that I know of. It was over a decade ago; so there may be ways in which some of my views (the questions is very broad – “any of your views”) have changed. I am a lot older; my children are grown up; my body has aged. But as far as my sense of what feminism, teaching, sexuality are, they have not changed in any major way that I can think of.
4. What advice would you give to others experiencing similar situations, in relation to sexual harassment?
I guess my main piece of advice is to resist the silence imposed by shame, to find people to talk to, to speak out, to write.
5. This semester, we also read Sandra Lipsitz Bem’s An Unconventional Family. How would you describe your family life? Your relationship with your partner? Your treatment of your children? Is it egalitarian? How has feminism shifted your understanding of family?
My longterm boyfriend and I have struggled to make a fair and thoughtful environment, one that respected all members of the family as differing individuals, resisting the homogenization by which a family tries to smother difference. I have struggled to be an attentive, caring mother who at the same time had serious professional ambitions. I remember with great pleasure the day my son, then 16, came to realize who I was professionally. He expressed it through a sense of amazement that the “mommy” who sang silly little songs to him was also a professor with high standards. He spent some time thinking about how those two opposing images could be the same person. I think he’s a better person for having had to bring those two images out of opposition.
6. If you could change one thing about your memoir, what would it be?
Honestly there hasn’t been one thing I’ve thought of changing. I’m not that kind of writer. I go on and write new books, but I don’t think about doing over those I’ve published. Which doesn’t mean I think they’re perfect, but that I think nothing is perfect. I think every book is a document of its moment in time, with the perspective of that moment.
7. What was the response/commentary your memoir received? How did those portrayed in your memoir respond?
I got a lot of enthusiastic response, but I also got a lot incomprehension. I had written something that was both memoir & theory. People did not understand this hybrid genre. They complained it was too anecdotal to count as theory (I have since published a book called Anecdotal Theory, to explain the idea behind such hybrid work); they complained there was not enough divulged for a memoir.
One of my accusers complained that the book was from my point of view and did not express her point of view. That is certainly true.
8. This semester, we also read Leslie Heywood’s Pretty Good for a Girl. What is your relationship to the body?
The body has been a lifelong site of struggle for me, a place where I have never been very comfortable. I have been located too much in the mind, although that has been a source of real pride and pleasure. I was uncoordinated and a poor athlete as a child. I have been overweight since I was around 40, struggling not to become really fat. As I am approaching 60 more and more of my body begins to give me trouble: arthritis in neck, feet, knees. I wish I had a better relation to my body. I have struggled throughout my life to have a better one. The triumphs in this lifelong battle are real but not lasting.
9. What do you think is the biggest hurdle facing feminism today?
How to credit both the battles in a more liberated society like the US and battles in explicitly patriarchal societies like Afghanistan. To focus on one usually makes it seem impossible to focus on the other. Awareness of societies that are more explicitly male supremacist can make educated feminists in the US seem either shallow and selfish or superior and patronizing.