Discourse on Anxiety: An Analysis of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”

Discourse on AnxietyPDF icon


Stories exist to act as a sort of virtual reality of the mind allowing readers to interact with various ideas and concepts that may require alteration.  Altering the definition of what it means to be a woman in any society has become an important arena for consideration.  In her short story, “Yellow Wallpaper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman captures the essence of this anxiety of definition in narrative journal format allowing a first person view of the inner struggle and thought the process of self-identity.  Discourse, in the story, can be observed to be divided in a very Platonic way in the conception of two social spheres representing the enlightened men and the ordinary women, doctor and patient, and husband and wife.  Rather than placing women in a position to explore a self-realized identity based on education, Gilman’s story divides men and women into distinct categories where dialog becomes the means in which to explore women’s identity.

To streamline the examination of Gilman’s dialog this essay will be divided into three distinct parts.  First, the historical context of the place of women in the nineteenth century will be reviewed to better understand the place of the narrator as well as the purpose of the diagnosis.  Secondly, a review of previous interpretations of the story will be considered in light of a Platonic interpretation of the story.  Finally, the essay will examine discourse as a means of understanding the place of women as being the domestic sphere which acts as a metaphorical cave.

Historical Context

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of reading any work of literature is to understand the social and cultural contexts in which of a story is set.  While autonomous projection can serve a useful purpose for a contemporary interpretation of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” understanding the place of women in the late nineteenth century can also provide insight into understanding the story.  Essentially, it is important to keep in mind that the story was not written directly for a contemporary audience, and that can change the overall meaning within the story.

The story, published in 1892, during an era that promoted the concept of “separate spheres” where men and women were moral, ethically, and politically divided (Hughes).  The ideology tended to rest on hard definitions of “natural” characteristics of men and females.  Women were considered physically inferior to men, but they were also considered morally superior to men as they never left the domestic environment (Hughes).  Moral superiority was the quality that best-suited women to care for the “domestic sphere” where women would raise children, care for the home, cook, and clean.  They also acted as a ballast to ensure that when men came home, they would not also bring the taint of the immoral public sphere with them (Hughes).  Along with the duty of raising children, a woman who may have been middle or upper class would ensure that the servants were doing an adequate job in taking care of the domestic environment.

Women’s rights did not exist in any meaningful way during this era.  Both law and public opinion supported the family as a patriarchal institution in which the husband, and father, was considered the only legal “person” in a household (Goodsell 13).  While this may have operated to make the family a robust and coherent unit, it also legally recognized men as the land owners, property owners, and the owner of his wife and children (Goodsell 13).  In fact, women’s rights could only be considered within the framework of separate spheres.  There were many tracks, embellished with easy to remember poems, which encouraged the subservient behavior.  It was audaciously titled “Women’s Rights.”  These rights consisted of:

The right to be a comforter,

When other comforts fail;

The right to cheer the drooping heart

When troubles most assail.

The right to train the infant mind,

To think of Heaven and God;

The right to guide the tiny feet

The path our Savior trod.

The right to solace the distressed,

To wipe the mourners tear;

The right to shelter the oppressed,

And gently chide the fear…

Such are the noblest women’s rights,

The rights which God hath given,

The right to comfort man on earth

And smooth his path to heaven. (Hughes)

Women’s rights, then, were solely guided by the domestic sphere, and their foremost duty was to their husbands as they “smooth his path to heaven” in a “cheerful” manner (Hughes).  It also highlights an economy where the woman’s cares and concerns come last.  Her first duty is to her husband, next to her children, then to God, and, finally, the oppressed.  Not having any time for herself, the woman acts as a slave to her husband and the domestic environment.

Apart from being enslaved by social and cultural norms that dictated their vocation as raising the next generation, it was assumed that women did not seek sexual or emotional satisfaction.  As William Acton declared, “the majority of women (happy for them) are not very much troubled with sexual feeling of any kind” (112).  When young women were finally married, they were united with men who were at least five years older.  This served a dual purpose.  First, it allowed a man to pursue an education that would provide a foundational income for raising a family (Hughes).  Secondly, the age difference reinforced the perception of the natural hierarchy between the sexes allowing the man to maintain headship over a younger woman (Hughs).

While these marriages were essentially the enslavement of women, many women believed that they belonged in the domestic sphere.  Graves wrote in 1841 that, “Fathers should be the patriarchal sovereigns, and mothers the queens of their households…The sanctuary of domestic life is to her (the wife) the place of safety as well as the ‘post of honour’” (45,60).  The French thinker Alex De Tocqueville was greatly impressed by the fact that in America, “the independence of women is irrecoverably lost in the bonds of matrimony” (245).  While the single girl “makes her father’s home an abode of freedom and of pleasure; the wife lives in the home of her husband as if it were a cloister” (245).  Overall, women could be viewed as little more than property designed for the particular purpose of serving a husband as a nun might serve God.

Masculine Definition of the Narrator

Within the framework of the two spheres dichotomy, Gilman’s story becomes a recognition of two separate worlds in the form of the physician or scientist, and patient.  Contained in the title of “physician” is the complete history of Western Civilization.  All man-made philosophy has elevated John, and all those who remain unblessed by Enlightenment education are those who live in Plato’s cave watching shadows on the wall.  It is from his position as a “physician of high standing” that allows John to authoritatively diagnose and, thus, define his young wife.  He diagnoses the narrator with “temporary nervous depression” with “slight hysterical tendencies,” but found nothing physically wrong with her (Gilman 138).  In the absence of physical evidence of a malady, John subjected his wife to the “rest cure” pioneered by Weir Mitchell and applauded the world over for its innovation, seemingly only be men who would have dominated the medical field.  The “cure” would only work, however, if key elements were followed:

…isolation, complete physical rest, a rich diet of creamy foods, massage, and electrical stimulation of disused muscles, and complete submission to the authority of the attending physician.  All physical and intellectual activity is to be prohibited.  A patient is to be lifted out of her own social and familial milieu and transported to a neutral environment tended only by a nurse and her doctor. (Mitchell)

Based on the conception of women as inferior in every way to man, the concept of the rest cure was designed to provide respite from regular domestic duties that had become a source of stress and anxiety.  The removal to a neutral environment was intended to take all that was stressful from the woman’s life.  However, by the second page of the story, the narrator already feels helpless and frustrated in light of her husband’s diagnostic declaration:

If… one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression- a slight hysterical tendency-what is one to do?…I take phospahtes or phosphites- whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys and air, and exercise, and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.  Personally I disagree with their ideas.  Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good. (Gilman 138-139)

John has defined his wife, apparently, very publicly, and he has done so in such a way as to veto any self-identification from the narrator.  If the unexamined life is not worth living then, John has examined the narrator’s life for her and has decided that she requires more restriction to heal.  Further diagnostic definition becomes necessary on John’s part to restrict the narrator as a thinking and creative being to relieve her anxiety.

Despite the fact that the narrator may know what is best for herself, she allows her husband to exercise his authority over her out of social obligation to her husband but also out of a sense of inferiority.  Given the public nature of the diagnosis as being both declaratively professional and masculine, the narrator must adhere to the regiment despite the fact that she feels that something is wrong, but she is unable to contradict her husband.  The narrator then becomes “unreasonably angry,” but she reminds herself that she is overly sensitive given her condition further allowing her husband to tighten the chains that enslave her to his person (Gilman 139).

The narrator reacts to the diagnosis by striving to define John.  Her definition of her husband describes him as extremely practical to the point that he has no patience for faith, and he also has an “intense horror of superstition” (Gilman 138).  She initially identifies him as a cold scientist, that believes only observable fact and cares nothing for feelings and less for imagination (Gilman 138).  While John is representative of early modernist Enlightenment thought, he also embodies all of the Western philosophy.  He is the Platonic prisoner set free from the cave through education, and he no longer looks at the world as shadows cast on the wall (Bloom 194).  John can look at and contemplate the light of the sun believing he pursues the source of all knowledge (Bloom 195).  All is illuminated and bright for John, and he is the enlightened man of science.

John’s diagnosis of his wife’s sickness as a nervous disorder is indicative of Enlightenment concepts of women.  Her disorder is a product of the very fact that she is a woman and not a man.  Rousseau said of women, “Consult women in all bodily matter, in all concerns of the senses; consult men in the matters of morality, and all that involves understanding” (59).  Women, according to Hegel, also lack self-conscious reflection which would necessarily mean that women were weaker than men both intellectually and self-consciously as they would have not a human consciousness (Kant 78; Hegel).  Finally, Kant describes women, while beautiful, as being intellectually inferior to men and not cut out for the work of exercising logic or engaging in complex thought (77-79).  All of these definitions of women serve to illustrate the belief that not all were designed to crawl out of Plato’s cave, and, in fact, only a handful of men would achieve the prestige of coming into the light.

As John is dedicated to reason, he decides to remove his wife from the stressful environment of the home and moves her out to the country.  However, his choice of location for respite is worth exploring.  John rents a “secure ancestral hall for the summer” that the narrator also describes as a “colonial mansion, a hereditary estate” and, even, a “haunted house” (Gilman 138).  Considering that women are part of the domestic sphere, it would stand to reason that remaining at home where everything would be familiar would have been a healthier choice.  The narrator does not seem to appreciate the new surroundings, and she believes that there is “something queer about it” (Gilman 139).  John shrinks her world to a minuscule cocoon meant to envelop and heal, but in so doing he has condemned her to the impossible task of recovering without thought or vocation enshrouded with the vestiges of the shadow of patriarchy.

The “hereditary estate” can also serve as the idea of secluding the narrator in the darkness of Plato’s cave.  To this point, John has provided every definition by his education and gender.  Now, as she has a kind of existential crisis he prescribes a remedy that would take her away from her home and into the country.  Like the cave, the colonial mansion represents repression for those who are too uneducated or unworthy to be left to the steady upward slope toward the light of truth.  The ancestral halls embody the shadow of patriarchy that casts shadows upon the wall to allow the narrator some little understanding of why the rest cure is necessary.

Not only has John chained her to a metaphor for the cave, but he also uses condescending childish language as a way to explain why she must stay in the house.  He belittles her as a thinker and writer as he explains:

…that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. (Gilman 144)

He also, out of frustration, reminds his wife of the domestic hierarchy:

My darling…I beg of you, for my sake and for our child’s sake, as well as for your own, that you will never for one instant let that idea enter your mind!  There is nothing so dangerous, so fascinating, to a temperament like yours.  It is a false and foolish fancy.  Can you not trust me as a physician when I tell you so? (Gilman 147)

John not only controls the light of her life, but he also manipulates the statues that cast shadows upon the wall to help his wife understand what is best.  She is not to imagine, but to be practical and willful, both tendencies that suit the masculine.  When the narrator claims she is not feeling better, he tells her that she must get better, not for herself, but for him, their son, and that she just needs to trust him as a doctor.  There is no appeal for his sake as a husband, and she must become more like him if she is to heal.

The majority of healing in the narrator’s case also means identifying within her domestic sphere.  She is anxious and stressed because she may be trying too hard to be selfish and independent.  The diagnostic relationship, rather than being therapeutic, serves to reorient her to the established social order.  She does not belong to herself, and John not only continues to remind her that she does not belong to herself but he also never refers to her by name.  He refers to her by very simple pet names such as “blessed little goose” (Gilman 141), “darling” or “dear” (Gilman 145,147), and “little girl” (Gilman 146).  By not using her name, the narrator’s identity must attach to John to have an identity.  Treating her as a child also serves to allow John the advantage of continual definition to the point that narrator can only identify herself by John’s dictates.  While the narrator reacts negatively to these definitions, they still make self-definition much harder as she has undergone extensive re-description by the light of her life.


While John defines the narrator using scientific language, the narrator fights to understand her personal identity.  Given the rigid definition of women in her day, the narrator struggles to understand who she is.  The conflict makes any definition bipolar as she swings from one extreme to the next in the space of a few sentences.  One moment she describes how much she disagrees believing that “excitement and change” would be better than resting (Gilman 138-139).   Above all, however, she strives to conform to her husband’s wishes, but there is no rest in conformity.  At first, she aims to become the expectation of her society, but the exertion is overwhelming:

… I take pains to control myself- before him, at least, and that makes me very tired…Nobody would believe what an effort it is to do what little I am able- to dress and entertain, and order things… (Gilman 139, 141)

The act of conformity to please her husband is a heavy burden that contradicts John’s edict as a physician, but the narrator seems to recognize that it is the only way she will be declared cured and released.

However, no matter how hard the narrator strives to conform, she has nothing to occupy her mind except the contradiction and confusion of defining herself.  The narrator allows the contradictory nature of her husband’s definition to oppose her desire for self-actualization.  Ford notes that “but,” the conjunction of contradiction, is used fifty-six times in the short space of the story (311).  Other words such as “and, so, only, besides” are also used as substitutes for “but.”  Even though her thoughts are written secretly on “dead paper,” the narrator seeks a small internal rebellion as a means of identifying separately from and contradicting her husband (Gilman 138).  Having nothing else to occupy her time, the narrator begins to study the wallpaper as it reflects the confusion she feels.

With no other stimulation, however, the yellow wallpaper covering her room becomes her focal point.  She reads it as she might read a book, and she wishes to interpret it as she is interpreting her life.  However, she finds that neither makes sense.  Just as the narrator is to be domestic, so too is wallpaper domestic and humble used to decorate a room or hide drywall or cover blemishes.  Outside her domestic environment, however, the wallpaper becomes a nightmarish symbol of being trapped in her domestic life. Both become:

Repellent, almost revolting; a smoldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.  It is dull yet lurid orange in some, a sickly sulfur tint in others (Gilman 140).

Just as the yellow wallpaper has been warped and faded, so too has the narrator personified and projected her confused feelings onto that wallpaper.  She feels repelled, revolted, and she smolders against the definition that John has assigned her, but she still finds no self-definition since she can only describe what she is not as John provides her singular self-conception.

Confusion over who she is can also be examined in the simple nature of her confinement. Her prison is a nursery, with rings on the walls, and bars on the windows (Gilman140).  The only piece of furniture in the chamber is a large bed that is immovable as it has been nailed to the floor (Gilman144).  Here rests another absurdity suggesting that she is a child, but the bed fixed to the floor also defines her sexual life regarding being beholden to her husband.  The nursery has become a place of childishness as well as sexual slavery designed to keep her ignorant and subdued making her recovery an extreme return to Plato’s cave.

Given the contradictory nature of her existence, and having no intellectual stimulation, the narrator studies and observes the wallpaper:

…by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind…it changes with the light.  When the sun shoots in through the east window- I always watch for that first long, straight ray-it changes so quickly that I never can quite believe it…by daylight it is subdued, quiet…in the day time it is tiresome and perplexing. (147,148-149)

While the sun subdues the wallpaper, it also becomes confusing to behold.  What makes the pattern complicated may stem from two similar reasons.  First, it could mean that the narrator is being exposed to the light of knowledge too soon and has no idea how to self-identify apart from John.  Just as in Plato’s cave, exposure to the light too soon may cause disorientation and confusion as the prisoner’s eyes are not yet accustomed to the light and must only receive definition from her husband.  Secondly, the wallpaper may be the narrator’s confusion as she realizes that she is a separate self, and is uncertain how to proceed without a voice.  During the day, in the absence of her husband, she can relax, her journal serves as her voice, and she writes with some certainty of opinion.  There is no burden to conform in the same way as when John is present.  In John’s absence, the narrator seems to use the wallpaper to reflect on her identity and what it means to be an individual.  In any case, the wallpaper becomes tiresome and perplexing as the narrator tries to force a definition of conformity upon it so that she may subdue it in the same way that she is subdued and wishes to overcome herself (Gilman 149).

While the narrator is unable to make sense of the pattern of the wallpaper under the light of the sun, she does discover that under certain dimmer lights she can make out a pattern.  The moonlight, however, becomes the most helpful light as it reveals the true nature of the pattern:

By moonlight- the moon shines in all night when there is a moon- I wouldn’t know it was the same paper.   At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candle light, lamplight, and worst of all moonlight, it becomes bars!  The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind them is as plain as can be. (Gilman 148)

Just as in Plato, Gilman uses the moon to illuminate what cannot be observed during the day.  The narrator, then, can see the truth of the wallpaper, and the wallpaper’s true nature is that of a prison.  It may be the prison of her identity or freedom of choice based on the concepts of family and social structure that trapped so many married women of the nineteenth century.  The moonlight unveils the nature of wallpaper identifying by night what becomes impossible to fathom by day.

Besides the bars imprisoning the woman, the yellow wallpaper is also festooned with other designs.  The first designs that she makes out are the heads of many women, strangled, necks broken, and bulbous eyes that stare at her (Gilman 142).  Those women who tried to escape the bars by forcing their heads through it were strangled and killed.   It may be that this accounts for the rancid smell connected to the “yellow” of the wallpaper:

It is the strangest yellow, that wallpaper.  It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw- not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.  But there is something else about the paper- the smell!  I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad.  Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here.  (Gilman 149).

The smell and the color may be tied to the idea of Gilman nodding to the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre as the segregation of the “other” where “yellow” can mean anyone who is not white (Lanser 428; Owens 77).  While this is an excellent interpretation of the color yellow, I would suggest that the color yellow becomes so pervasive because it is emanating from the narrator.  It’s in her clothes, her hair, and she notices it even when she is out riding in the open air (Gilman 150).  Perhaps it has always been her natural smell, and it was accepted because she took her role and definition in society without question.  Understanding that her definition does not come from her self-consciousness has allowed her to realize that she is part of the “yellow.”  Perhaps the whole world is yellow apart from the patriarchs of the West who form the definitions of not just their society but the world.  Women, ethnic minorities, gay and lesbian, and any who do not fit John’s misogynist definition may be yellow.

While this may generalize the color yellow, it also includes all those who would continue to be yellow even today.  Rather than making it a single group such as women or designing a concept of the Orientalization of the world from the color, it seems that any whose definition could be inhibited by a rhetoric of conquest and definition would fall into the category of the wallpaper.  In the case of the narrator, just as in the event of all who may be yellow, a new self-conception takes drastic action.  When the author finally does tear down the wallpaper, she liberates the shadow woman behind it, and they are united.  She becomes so convincing that she bends John to her will.  Having been out all night, John returns home to find the door locked, and no key.  He calls for an ax, but the narrator stops him:

“John, dear!” said I in the gentlest voice, “the key is down by the front steps, under the plantain leaf!”  That silenced him for a few moments.  Then he said- very quietly indeed, “Open the door my darling!”  “I can’t,” said I, “key is down by the front door under the plantain leaf!”  And then I said it again, several times, very gently and slowly, and said so often that he had to go and see, and he got it of course and came back. (Gilman 154)

Being free of the norms represented by the wallpaper, the narrator can stay the hand of her husband from destroying the door with an ax.  While it takes a repetition, John eventually leaves to find the key and uses it to open the door.

Finally, the door open, the discourse ends when John observes his wife creeping around the room.  Creeping is an interesting word that means to go without being noticed.  Throughout the story, the women of the wallpaper have crept, sometimes on all fours, but always the creep.  They do so, it would seem, in order not to be noticed.  Once they escape their prison and realize that they are human and intelligent, they have no desire to return.  However, lacking a definition, the narrator seems to have gone mad.  Finally, she has come from the cave, but she is just as confused as when she was confined, “I’ve got out at last…in spite of you and Jane.  And I’ve pulled off most of the paper so you can’t put me back” (Gilman 154).  John faints.  Patriarchy has been temporary reversed, but she creeps over him (Gilman 154).  She must continue to creep over him until he wakes.  There is the idea that he will wake at some point since he’s only fainted.  Patriarchy is only temporarily suspended, and while he cannot put her back behind the bars of the wallpaper, at some point, she will have to be contained to return her to the healthy society of her day.


Gilman’s story represents an ongoing struggle for women as they seek to identify themselves separately from preconceived notions of the masculine social convention.  Language can become the chains that constrain and require conformity to social conventions.  One area that is rife with a similar dialog as Gilman’s is the concept of extreme complementarianism.  One such example is John Piper and his conception of living as a Biblical man or woman.  On his radio show, he was taking phone calls answering questions and providing a view of what it meant to live as a Biblical man or woman.  Piper accepted one particular call that interested me, and that was a woman who was interested in becoming a member of law enforcement.

Piper listened to the young lady, but his response to her was similar to reading the dialog of John as he berated and belittled his wife in his sarcastic, condescending fashion:

At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to man’s differing relationships.  The postman won’t relate to the lady at the door the way the husband will, but he will be a man.  At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to woman’s differing relationships. (Piper)

Just as the wallpaper reflects the confusion of the narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” so too does Piper use a language that confuses the identity of women trying to live in the public sphere.  Just as the poem “Women’s Rights” suggests, Piper draws a list of acceptable behaviors for women as, “the heart of a mature woman is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men” (Piper).  Piper seems to suggest that all men are entitled to if the postman, who is not the woman’s husband, has natural authority over a woman because he is a man strikes me as being very similar to the way in which John belittles his wife as if she were a child.

Despite the fact that Piper began his comments with a disclaimer that he would never make a declarative category that would divide people into distinctly male or female groups, he still felt that there was a difference between masculine and feminine jobs.  Police officers, doctors, lawyers, or, basically, any position where a woman would have authority over a man was unacceptable:

Some influence is very directive, and some are non-directive.  For example, a drill sergeant might epitomize directive influence over the privates in a platoon.  And it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant- hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private- over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood. (Piper)

Again, Piper uses words to bind the authority and ability of women.  A woman should never have authority over man as “it would violate his sense of manhood makes men seem weak in the first place” (Piper).  However, his language is also the language of definition intended to shape the future.

Patriarchal language begins developing the minds of people when they are mere children.  Lately, my ten-year-old daughter has experienced subjection to afore-mentioned language and practice of patriarchy.  She loves to play sports, but recently she was told by a group of boys at school that boy’s sports were all that mattered because their dads said so.  They told her that nobody cared “about girl’s sports.”  She came straight home and asked me if that was what everybody thought.  When I explained to her that was not what everybody thought, she seemed happier, but she informed me that she was going to prove all those boys wrong.  She would outplay any of them any day if they let her play.

Gilman masterfully captures these ideas in her story.  John embodies the social conception of women as being substandard.  Much like Piper and the boys at school, John mostly treats his wife as if she were complaining, and Rousseau suggests, “Women do wrong to complain of inequality of man-made laws; this inequality is not of man’s making, or at any rate it is not the result of more prejudice, but of reason” (571).

Even more than just complaining, however, Gilman represents the flawed logic of her day as well as the advice given by Piper.  There is a suggestion that men are necessary as logical beings to bring definition to women.  Piper’s language is indicative of the same linguistic category suggested by Gilman, namely that the justification for dominance over women through medical definition, family position, and social roles is due to women being merely creatures rather than fully formed adults that can reason and desire without outside definitions.

The dialog between John and his wife oversimplifies women.  He treats her as a child using language that would be more appropriate for a child.  He lords his scientific prowess and high reputation over her as if he were a god and her his creation.  The narrator strives to fit into the conception of what it means to be a woman for her husband.  She struggles to admire him, she obeys his orders as a doctor and a husband, and she struggles to appease him even when she has done nothing wrong.  The dialog has changed since Gilman wrote this story, but it has not changed so drastically to erase the image of the yellow wallpaper from out of the hearts of women in Western society.  The urge to perform according to the social standards still exists, and that desire can still be tyrannical.

In conclusion, “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gillman provides an astounding commentary on the desire of women to define themselves as individuals apart from social convention.  Just as masculine identity does not depend only on a profession, so women should not be defined by the social tendency to categorize women as “other.”  The concept of what it means to be a woman must not continuously and continually find definition through patriarchal cultural institutions; instead, women need the freedom to explore and identify who they are without the interference of so many overarching interpretations.  In the end, an institutional definition serves to confuse individual identity both socially and privately.  The idea of the yellow wallpaper provides a discourse on how women can be trapped desiring to know who they are and how they should act or be.



Works Cited

Ford, Karen. “‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ and Women’s Discourse.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 4, no. 2, Autumn 1985, pp. 309-14. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/463709. Accessed 23 Apr. 2017.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper.” The City University of New York, edited by Catherine Lavender, Department of History, 8 June 1999, csivc.csi.cuny.edu/history/files/lavender/whyyw.html. Accessed 25 Apr. 2017.

—. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories, edited by James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, Mentor, 1995, pp. 138-54.

Goodsell, Willystine. “The American Family in the Nineteenth Century.”American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 160, Mar. 1932, pp. 13-22. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1018511. Accessed 26 May 2017.

Hegel, G.W.F. Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), trans. A.V. Miller (New York: Oxford

University Press, 1977), Chapter IV, Part A: “Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Mastery and Slavery.” In the e-book below this is pp. 20-28.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” British Library, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gender-roles-in-the-19th-century#. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Translated by John T. Goldthwait, University of California Press, 1965.

Lanser, Susan S. “Feminist Criticism, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ and the Politics of Color in America.” Feminist Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Fall 1989, pp. 415-41. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/317798. Accessed 26 May 2017.

Mitchell, S. Weir, M.D. “Google” [“Google Books”]. Google Books, Google, 1897, books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=ZRcLAAAAIAAJ&dq=Wear+and+Tear,+or+Hints+for+the+Overworked&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=cbohBdctgI&sig=G-oGw6nstW0xbg7_aOVzwEGqFNI&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result#v=onepage&q=Wear%20and%20Tear%2C%20or%20Hints%20for%20the%20Overworked&f=false. Accessed 19 May 2017.

Owens, Suzanne. “The Ghostly Double Behind the Wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” Haunting House of Fiction, edited by Lynette Carpenter, University of Tennessee Press, 1991, pp. 64-79.

Piper, John. “Should Women Be Police Officers?” Desiring God Ministries, DesiringGod, 13

Aug. 2015, www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-women-be-police-officers. Accessed 21 Feb. 2017.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. 1762. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. Ed. Isaac Kramnick.

New York: Penguin, 1995. 568-79.

St. Jerome. The Principle Works of St. Jerome. Translated by W.H. Freemantle, Amazon Digital

ServicesLLC, 2010.

Tocqueville, Alexis De, et al. Democracy in America. Pbk. ed., Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2002.

Treichler, Paula A. “Escaping the Sentence: Diagnosis and Discourse in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.'” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol. 3, no. 1/2, Spring 1984, pp. 61-77. JSTOR. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Winterer, Caronline. “Scholarship Versus Culture.” Chapter 5. The Culture of Classicism, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002, pp. 152-78.

Women in America. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1858.

Editor’s Note

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Interdisciplinary encompasses several concepts, chief among them progression. At times, progression comprises radical change. The idea of equality for all men, regardless of class, was certainly a radical idea when Rousseau published the Discourse on the Origin and the Foundation of Inequality. He believed in waking up to a better world, one featuring revised versions of nationalism, freedom, and brotherhood. However, that’s just the word that hints at Rousseau’s cultural blindness: brotherhood. Instead of rally for the rights of everyone, he focuses on what he knows to be true, the rights of men. Other modes of research countered his claims. Specifically, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women calls out the hypocrisy in Rousseau’s arguments for egalitarianism. For if forward motion is truly the epicenter of progression, marching off without half of the human race is no way forward at all. Likewise, in the academic world and beyond, the unification of all modes of research and creative expression through interdisciplinary approaches is intrinsic to greater understanding. This issue of Penumbra proudly highlights gender issues in an effort to be the other voice reaching for reason, much like Wollstonecraft.

Another part of interdisciplinary may be defined in a collectivist sense. Self and interdependence are outlined in Gish Jen’s Tiger Writing. She relies heavily on stories about her father (and his family and cultures) to inform readers about herself, as reflected through others. Understanding and practicing interdisciplinary research is quite similar to Jen’s description of interdependence, which leads to instances of “in between”. According to Silko as quoted by Delores Bernal, “in this universe there is no absolute good or absolute bad; there are many balances and harmonies that ebb and flow.” The ability to remain in flux, while also reaching back to a constant, is strength-building, and integral to the interdisciplinary approach.

  • §


This issue of Penumbra includes four critical articles, two essays, one short story, and various poems. The work comes to us from scholars in academe and out, established and emerging writers and artist in the U.S. and abroad, individuals using traditional and experimental styles to explore the power of critical and creative expression as it relates to the interdisciplinary approach.

In her essay, “‘So . . . who are you now?’: Performing Women in Stage Beauty’s English Restoration”, Tico Tenorio examines gender and performance through the lens of Judith Butler, contextualized through an analysis of the 2004 film, Stage Beauty. Similarly, Misti Chamberlain’s “They Aren’t in the History Books: Women Artists in History” focuses on gender, specifically on the omission of women’s contributions to art history books, as she seeks to highlight certain women artists. “Welcome Home Sisters! : A Personal and Political Education”, another gender-critical piece by Kris Hege, is an academic and personal reflection on the radical feminist education–the pedagogy, curriculum, and community–of the 40th Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival that took place in August 2015. In one more expansion on gender from a different perspective, Nancy Pratt offers her essay, “The Truth Women Tell: Arthritis, Heartache, and a Mercedes”, to show unity and individualism of the woman’s experience at an age when art, media and society often completely ignore women of a “certain age”.

Brandon Marlon’s poem collection includes four pieces focused on narrative, compelling imagery, human desire, and satire. Another poem by Nancy Semotiuk, “Faculty Colloquium at the Country Club”, examines privilege through the lens of race and social justice. Sharon Lin’s “Swiftly” is a story chronicling a young woman preparing for the holiday season, but doubts begin to creep in when she rediscovers a memory from her childhood.

In keeping with memory and experience, Allison Budaj offers her creative essay, “Confessions of a Study Abroad Coordinator”, detailing her journey to becoming a Study Abroad Coordinator and the various obstacles she encountered while leading her first group abroad. Next comes a critical essay from Janis Chandler, who discusses history and gentrification in “Faubourg Tremé: Cultural and Societal Progress in a Neighborhood Faced with Gentrification.” The last critical piece to round off the issue underscores philosophy and relationship evaluated via a literary lens: in “Friendship in Frankenstein: An Artistotelian-Thomistic Analysis” by Greta Enriquez.

While all of the criticism and fiction appearing in this issue were approved for publication following a double-blind review, “Only Time Can Tell” is a solicited mixed-media piece that scholar and Artist Misti Chamberlain graciously shared for the cover of this issue. We found the image to be stunning. Coupled with Chamberlain’s critical article, “They Aren’t in the History Books: Women Artists in History”, a practical application of expanded perspectives is highlighted on a greater scale.

Adding greater perspectives is the mission of this journal, and should be the mission of progression. Varied perspectives fuels ideas and expands knowledge. Furthermore, Delores Bernal believes that a mixed sense of “epistemology exposes human relationships and experiences […also enabling others…] to become agents of knowledge who participate in intellectual discourse that links experience, research, community, and social change.” Where some view formlessness, the contributors and editors of this journal see fluidity. With fluidity comes innovation, in the form of new research and creative endeavors.



“Welcome Home Sisters!”: A Personal and Political Education

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For Rebecca in Barter on the occasion of our 1st Michigan Womyn’s Music festival. by Caroline (and Monika) from Montreal, Canada August 16, 1987

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

a womon with one breast

I’d never seen

womyn walking nude

hand in hand

very simple

but I’d never seen it

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

thirty Amazon mud wrestlers

or womyn

whose breasts

held worlds of their own


creating crafts

for womyn only:

purple velvet

silver labyris

clitoris in pearl

I’d never

walked alone in the woods


of rape


before Michigan

I’d never seen

so many stomachs, thighs,

breasts, buttocks,

so many colored

pubic hairs

made public

with ease



I’d never seen

so many Lesbians

I’d never had the chance

to love so openly

to stand pressed to my lover

outside our tent

orgasms still coursing through us

flute or bongos in the background

womyn stiring, womyn moving,

womyn loving

like us

near by

Before Michigan

I knew diversity

could be respected

amongst womyn

but I’d never

lived the reality

like this…..

womyn of colors, white womyn,

sober support, over forties,

DART, young womyn

interpretation by voice or hand

I’d never seen

children growing

with the education I missed

Before Michigan

I’d never seen

a womon with one breast.


[1] From Voices From The Land http://www.michfestmatters.com/


The above poem was written for a breast cancer survivor as trade for a velvet treasure bag at the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival barter market. Every August since 1976 women from around the country and around the world have gathered in rural Michigan for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (Michigan). More than ten years ago, when I first learned of this annual gathering in celebration of lesbian feminist culture, I knew that I wanted to attend Michigan. As a lesbian feminist who loves music and nature, six days deep in the woods surrounded by other lesbian feminists and some of my favorite musicians, comics, and spoken-word artists seemed like a little piece of heaven on earth. For ten long years I heard the distant drumbeat of my tribe but there was always some reason I couldn’t go; I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the vacation time from work, I didn’t have anyone to go with, I was at residency for graduate school, I was afraid of the reaction from my activist communities due to controversy over trans inclusion at the festival .  When I learned that 2015 would be the 40th and last Michigan I knew I had to make the pilgrimage despite my fears. I couldn’t let this, my last opportunity, slip away.

I had no idea at the time that Michigan would prove to be more than a camping trip, more than a simple music festival, more than a series of workshops, but a full-fledged educational experience.  It may be unusual to think of a music festival as a school, but in his essay “Movements making knowledge: a new wave of inspiration for sociology?” Laurence Cox (2014) writes, “Much of the knowledge now treated as unproblematically academic, including some of its highest status products, has roots in the efforts of popular movements to contest the status quo” (p. 957). I was already steeped in feminist theory and knew quite a bit about the lesbian feminist culture responsible for shepherding in birth and abortion rights, the equal rights amendment, rape-crisis centers, and women’s shelters, basically the culture celebrated at Michigan. With that background, I certainly didn’t expect to leave Michigan with a whole new perspective on both my role as a feminist activist and my personal identity as a “fat butch dyke”. I didn’t expect Michigan to be as much or even more about education than it was about entertainment. Even today I struggle to articulate both my actual experiences of the festival and the depth of meaning this six-day excursion in the Michigan woods has had on my life.


[1] I will not devote space in this essay for this twenty-year controversy. For more information, see:

  • Official festival statements: http://michfest.com/community-statements/
  • Myths and truths about Michigan: http://www.michfestmatters.com/myths-and-truths-about-the-michigan-womyns-music-festival/
  • History of camp trans: http://eminism.org/michigan/faq-protest.html

When I think of education in the most technical sense there are three words that come to mind—curriculum, pedagogy, and community. Michigan was not only a space for women to live, even briefly, outside the confines of capitalist heteropatriarchy, but it also held space for lesbian feminists to share their culture and language. The curriculum at Michigan was vast and varied; from singing circles to writing workshops, from anti-racism dialogues to herbal medicine demonstrations there was something for everyone. Michigan was a model of “how kindness might produce pedagogical relationships that sow the seeds of possibility for the transformation of … lives” and was an answer to the questions “how might we imagine a feminism that uses kindness as a pedagogical strategy? And what might feminist kindness in the classroom do to the lives, bodies, experiences, and identities that inhabit these spaces” (Magnet, Mason, & Trevenen, 2014, p. 1). Finally, a safe and supportive community was at the heart of everything that transpired on the festival land.

After two days of driving the 900 miles across Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan my partner Dena and I arrived at “The Line”. Thousands of women were lined up for over 8 miles in RV’s, SUVs, trucks, minivans, and compact cars. Some with nothing but a backpack, some with automobiles overflowing with gear. As I lowered my window I began to hear the the refrain, “Welcome home sisters!” What started out feeling kitschy, soon gathered meaning and started to feel real. On the line women of all shapes and sizes and colors, all smiling and waving, greeted us as if we were family. In her entry in Voices From The Land (2016) festival attendee Artemis writes, “My partner walks The Line with the girls and explains, quite plainly, that everyone they see here is female. That one with the beard? Female. That one with the tie and coat? Female. Those two women over there, with the kid just learning to walk? That is a family. Us, here together? We are a family too.” This was the first lesson I began to learn even before entering the gates, I was part of a global tribe of women, of feminists and lesbians. I had a culture and a community, and here I had found a whole new family. For the next 8 hours, as afternoon turned to dusk and dusk turned to evening, we started to get to know this new family while we slowly made our way to the festival gate.

My partner and I finally entered the gates at 9pm as darkness was beginning to settle over the festival grounds. Some of the festival crew suggested we might want to park and spend the night in our car, but having just spent two days in my compact Mazda3 the last thing I wanted to do was spend another minute in its too small confines. Little did we know that we still had hours to get through orientation, pick out our work shifts, load and unload our gear, and figure out how to set up camp in the pitch-black darkness of the rural Michigan woods. You must understand that the land where this festival was built is almost entirely untouched forest; there were no designated campsites pre-cleared of forest debris. Somehow we picked a spot and hung our meager lantern on a branch. I briefly regretted getting the two-room Taj Mahal of tents as we struggled to untangle impossibly long tent poles and what seemed like miles of incomprehensible nylon in almost complete darkness. It was after 1:00 AM when we finally—gratefully, despite the cold temperatures and a leaking air mattress—settled into our first night of much needed rest.

The first morning on the land brought a wave of lessons. Professor Bonnie Morris (1999) describes some of the sensations felt by first-time attendees in her book Eden Built By Eves where she writes, “Forget structure and hierarchy for a moment, the first shock for festival virgins is the plethora of breasts. This is women-only space, folks— which means the freedom and safety to go without a shirt in the soft summer air. It means for many a woman the first day of being at home in her body and the first sensation of sun on her bare back since babyhood. There is no need to cover up here; there is no need for shame” (p. 67). I was immediately in awe of women of every age, size, color, and gender presentation all seeming comfortable and safe in their own skin, clothed and unclothed. It didn’t matter if a topless woman was 350 or 120 pounds, we still looked each other in the eye as we passed, no sneers, no cat calls, no judgments. Even though I felt the heavy burden of a lifetime of female socialization and body shame lifting slightly the hardest part of the second day for me was the showers!

Michigan didn’t have any indoor facilities. There were several shower areas like the one pictured below. They were simply ten shower heads, five on each side of a wooden structure with one curtained shower on the back, referred to as the “shy shower.”

Figure 1:https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/07/fe/48/07fe488822751a8e4274937a886cb889.jpg

After such a long day on the line and setting up camp the night before, I was in dire need of cleansing. As I stood in line waiting for a free spot I got more and more nervous about being so vulnerably naked in front of so many other women. When the first shower opened, I froze. I couldn’t do it. My partner took that first open shower. When the next opened I still couldn’t do it. I waited for the shy shower. As I cleaned off the dust and sweat of the day before I vowed to myself that I was going to somehow overcome this paralyzing fear built on body shame. This became my personal goal for the week; I would walk the land naked at least once before I had to leave it behind.

For the week 6,609 women came together as a family, cooking together, cleaning together, loving together, playing together, showering together, and even fighting together. In short, collectively doing all the things needed to make any home or community a functional place. Safety was the number one priority and collective actions of this makeshift family ensured everyone’s basic needs were met. A kitchen staffed with a mix of festival worker crew and many attendee volunteers cooked hot vegetarian meals three times a day over wood fired cooking pits kept burning overnight for the entire festival. DART, the Disabled Access Resource Team, provided a special centralized camping area, shuttle services around the festival grounds for people with mobility issues, wheelchair accessible showers, and ASL interpreter services at all shows and requested workshops. The Oasis was a place to find any kind of emotional or addiction support. Basic health services for all attendees could be found at The Womb. Outside of the official festival services, women helped each other whenever a need was seen.

I was thrilled to live in a land where “feminist” was not a dirty word, where capitalist heteropatriarchy was not the predominant belief system, and where it was safe to be anyone I wanted to be. A friend of mine recently wrote a Facebook post about some of her Michigan experiences and the loss we share at the closing of the festival:

Michfest, above all else, was a place for womyn to heal from patriarchal trauma and abuse. Approximately 80% of womyn at Michfest were lesbians or bisexual, and many were also differently abled, womyn of color, sexual abuse survivors, butch and gender non-conforming womyn who experienced a lot of discrimination, Deaf or hard-of-hearing, economically disadvantaged, closeted for safety, and/or in recovery. Michfest was our one safe place, maybe the only 650 acres on Earth where womyn were free. That is why all the vitriol against Michfest is such a punch to the gut. Trans activists paint us as a “hate group,” when in fact we are a hateD group, trying to heal. Michfest was, for so many womyn who had survived girlhood, a place of healing from spending our whole lives dealing (to various degrees) with misogyny, abuse, and oppression in patriarchy. There were multiple, daily Sacred Singing Circles, recovery meetings, healing workshops, sweat lodges for abuse survivors, and so on and so forth…and these healing circles and rituals were frickin’ intense. I will never forget the intensity of both the joy, of womyn and girls dancing naked and giddy and free in a circle of sisters, and the pain, the unbelievable pain that surged out of womyn in the form of screams, moans, gagging, tears, gasps, fists pounding the dirt. That literal, physical purging of pain and oppression was often what it took in order to begin healing. It may have been the only place in the world where that purging and healing was possible at that level and with that level of safety…. We had *no time or energy* to put towards oppressing trans people, as trans activists claim, because all our time and energy was required for healing ourselves and each other. AND WE WERE NOT DONE (Gabrielle, 2016).

Never, before Michigan, would I have thought it possible for a big butch woman to parade in a tutu. Never, before Michigan, would I have thought it possible for 30 nude women of color to march in the center of town chanting, “Naked and safe is beautiful.” Never, before Michigan, have I seen girlhood in all its diversity so genuinely celebrated. From archery and hatchet throwing to hula hoops and stilt-walking, dressed in bowties or fairy wings, at Michigan girlhood mattered.

Throughout the week I had a lot to learn from this community of women. Before I could keep my personal promise of walking the land naked I had to learn some hard lessons about me as a fat woman, as a feminist, and as a butch dyke, as well as lessons about the safety and compassion of a community built on a foundation of radical feminist idealism. Fortunately, the loving community of Michigan was just the first aspect of its educational potential. In retrospect I see that there was also an astounding curriculum that was delivered through a powerful pedagogical model that encouraged active participation through its emphasis on kindness, compassion, and safety.

An unspoken but clear commitment to kindness toward each other and the planet at the heart of Michigan made it a place where curiosity and accountable relationships were formed even where there were strongly divergent positions. In 1991 a transwoman, Nancy Buckholder, was asked to leave the festival which sparked a 24-year controversy over trans inclusion and the festival intention as a place of celebration of women and girls who were born female. Despite the festival organizers’ repeated denunciation of the 1991 incident as a mistake, as well as the simple fact that transwomen were always present at the festival, many queer activists have targeted Michigan as well as performers and attendees with boycotts and even extreme threats of violence (see https://terfisaslur.com for examples). Although I had read all about the controversy from outside the festival, I was very curious to see how the topic of trans inclusion was discussed within festival. I was surprised to see that, not only was the topic of trans inclusion discussed but, even in its very last year, several workshops in different formats were dedicated to facilitating the challenging conversations around the controversial topic. I chose to attend two Allies in Understanding workshops and one Imagining an Inclusive Festival workshop.

Early in the first workshop we discussed the practice of radical listening. Radical listening is the startlingly simple idea of listening closely to whoever is speaking instead of thinking about what you want to say next. It seems simple, but it turns out to be more difficult in practice than one would expect. After practicing radical listening and modeling communication techniques that allowed for expression of controversial and even upsetting differences of opinion, the workshop leaders asked everyone to line up along a spectrum depending on how they felt about the idea of trans inclusion in the festival. The line was then folded in half and we were partnered with our ideological opposite in the spectrum and asked to share our feelings and radically listen to the feelings of our partner. I talked about being in what I termed the “Michigan closet,” not feeling safe in my community because I planned to attend the festival and how that was such a shame because so much of the hatred was based on misinformation. The woman I shared this with reflected similar feelings and together we wondered how we could tell the story of Michigan in a way that could be heard by these people we care about but who don’t understand the intention of the festival.  Obviously, I was not on an extreme end of the spectrum and the woman I was partnered with in this exercise was open to a creative dialogue. I don’t know that anyone’s views were significantly changed because of the exercise, but after the workshop one woman who had a more extreme position on the topic said that she thought the respectful conversations that she had over the two days allowed for a deeper level of understanding, if not harmony, than could ever be achieved in the flame wars of social media.

Another example of understanding across difference came from my partner Dena who is a Jewish Palestine solidarity activist. She met several Zionist women at the “Jews Choosing Justice Despite our Fears” workshop for Jewish-identified women.  Although the conversation they had was difficult and uncomfortable, she later told me that the experience allowed women from opposite ends of a heated spectrum to hear each other in ways that had not previously been possible. Later in the day we sat with one woman from the workshop who told her “I can hear it coming from you here in this space.” Unlike anywhere else in my experience, within Michigan people from opposite ends of extremely emotionally charged issues came together to talk through and learn from each other with respect. The feminist ethos of radical listening, unconditional love, and deep mutual respect built into the Michigan foundations and maintained even when we vehemently disagreed, created a space where discussion could occur between different modes of knowing, ultimately creating new knowledge and better understanding.

In a recent Feminist Teacher article, “Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness” Shoshana Magnet, Corinne Lysandra Mason, and Kathryn Trevenen (2014), describe “curiosity [as] an emotion necessary to learning and discovery, one that thrives more easily in an environment where students feel safe to try out different ideas and to dialogue with one another. In this way, a pedagogical commitment to kindness also helps to foster curiosity, an essential feature of education” (p. 8). They go on to describe a pedagogical method they call “thinking with” where “kindness is understood as a pedagogical strategy to rearrange our engagements with texts and each other, so that ‘thinking with’ rather than ‘speaking to’ or ‘arguing with’ is central to the classroom objectives” (p. 11). In retrospect, I can see that the pedagogy of Michigan was exactly what these teachers were experimenting with in their classrooms, a feminist pedagogy of kindness. At the time of the Allies in Understanding workshop I thought it was crazy and perhaps even a little bit dangerous to “fold the line” and open discussion between the most ideologically opposite participants in the workshop, but now I see that the underlying pedagogy of kindness supported that dialogue in a way where curiosity and the possibility of deeper understanding resulted in conversations that were more geared toward thinking with rather than speaking to or arguing with each other.

The Michigan curriculum incorporated countless subjects that are not available in traditional mainstream educational settings, or even in most social or activist spaces. Some of the topics covered included radical acceptance, feminist history, lesbian culture, and sexual and gender identity. As much as Michigan was a place for affirmative learning, it was also a place for unlearning racism, classism, ageism, ableism, and body shame. This is a radical learning. In her dissertation, Reconstructing Gender, Personal Narrative, and Performance At The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (2011) Lisa Higgins describes Michigan as a place “where women strive to revise regressive models of community and unlearn the negative ‘–isms’ that permeate the larger patriarchal culture. … At Festival, this large gathering of women creates intersections from a range of races, classes, communities, and backgrounds where even this feminist institution is questioned, targeted, and criticized by its own participants” (p. 36). In academia we learn about joining the academic conversation which sometimes means questioning the foundations and separations of disciplines. Similarly, Michigan provided a safe place to not only celebrate lesbian feminist culture, but to seriously question, debate, and expand the beliefs at the heart of that culture. Michigan could serve as a model for education that asks important questions like: What are valid ways of knowing? Whose knowledge is valuable? Whose voices are being left out? How do we communicate across difference?

In their essay, “The Woman-Identified Woman,” Radicalesbians (1970) wrote:

To the extent that she cannot expel the heavy socialization that goes with being female, she can never truly find peace with herself. … Those of us who work that through find ourselves on the other side of a tortuous journey through a night that may have been decades long. The perspective gained from that journey, the liberation of self, the inner peace, the real love of self and of all women, is something to be shared with all women – because we are all women. (p. 1)

The radical feminist values at the core of Michigan made it a place where women could, even briefly, expel the heavy socialization that goes with being female to do the work, individually and collectively, of getting through to the other side of this tortuous journey. The legacy of Michigan is the perspective, liberation, inner peace, and love gained by all of us who have lived and loved and learned on that sacred land and in that truly feminist educational tradition. Michigan will be remembered as a community where the lives and culture of women, regardless of race, ability, size, gender expression, age, religion, or sexual orientation were validated and celebrated. Michigan was a model for education that incorporated a curriculum built according to the needs and desires of all who came through the gates rather than the interests of capitalist heteropatriarchy. Michigan was a place where a pedagogy of kindness made possible true curiosity and radical understanding even where disagreements seemed insurmountable.

With this I am brought full circle to the poem included as a preamble to this essay “Before Michigan / I knew diversity / could be respected /amongst womyn / but I’d never / lived the reality / like this… / I’d never seen / children growing / with the education I missed.” I am profoundly grateful to have experienced a taste of the education, community, curriculum, and pedagogy found at Michigan. Though I regret all the years I missed, I hope to share the fundamental lessons of radical acceptance and feminist empowerment far beyond the gates of Michigan and into the wider world where those lessons are so tragically needed.

As women filed out of closing ceremonies on the final night of the final Michigan I still hadn’t kept my promise to myself. I had managed to take a few showers outside of the “shy shower” under the cover of darkness, never looking up, and with my towel close at hand for a quick cover-up for the return to the tent. I had one last chance. Had I learned any of the lessons of Michigan? Had I let go of any of the emotional baggage from a lifetime of oppression and female socialization? Had I learned to trust? It was time to find out!

Elizabeth Ritzman’s Voices From The Land entry echoes my own sentiments about that last shower and living in the safety and shelter of womyn’s land, she writes, “I remember finding the courage to go shower in the moonlight, and how I never wanted to leave. That safe feeling sheltered by the trees, pebbles beneath my feet, the giggling girls in the trees, that moon, womyns bodies of all sorts wet and glistening, murmuring to each other in the night. This is what it must be like to live in a world created and defined by women. The night is an intimate friend, no longer a threat to be managed.” I stepped out from under the water and walked, cleaner and lighter, for the first time on that sacred land wearing nothing but moonlight.  This final lesson I learned at Michigan was both the most challenging and the most personally and politically rewarding. Body shame is ubiquitous in our culture and has played a particularly destructive role in my life as a fat butch dyke. It took a whole week, the cover of darkness, and the courage, compassion, and radical acceptance of over 6,600 women in sacred community to loosen the bonds of body shame in myself. The bonds are still there today, but for a brief moment, I was able to see what the world might be like without them, and it was phenomenal!





Cox, L. (2014). Movements making knowledge: a new wave of inspiration for sociology? Sociology, 48(5), 954-971.

Magnet, S., Mason, C. L., & Trevenen, K. (2014). Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness. Feminist Teacher, 25(1), 1-22.

Morris, B. J. (1999). Eden built by Eves: The culture of women’s music festivals: Alyson Publications.

Radicalesbians, Ÿ. (1970). The woman identified woman: New England Free Press.

Voices From The Land. (2016). Michfest Matters.  Retrieved from http://www.michfestmatters.com/